EAST LANSING -- David Zoltowski, a Michigan State senior and varsity swimmer, was always sure of two things: he wanted to attend a Big Ten school and study the brain. While positive of what he wanted to do, Zoltowski’s path to MSU was a twisting one, influenced by his desire to swim collegiately.
A native of Lafayette, Indiana, Zoltowski grew up an avid fan of his hometown Purdue Boilermakers. His parents are both on Purdue’s faculty, and he grew up swimming for the Boilermaker Aquatics club. Zoltowski could be spotted sporting black and old gold on game day, and Purdue was his dream school.
“Purdue was the school that I really wanted to go to, but then things didn’t work out,” said Zoltowski. “But then I say I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
After being told by the Purdue coach that they couldn’t guarantee him a spot, Zoltowski started looking at other options. One of his options was Wisconsin, but a coaching change in late spring of his senior year meant his spot wasn’t guaranteed there either. Up until the final month of his senior year of high school, Zoltowski didn’t really know where he was going to be attending college or swimming. It wasn’t until the club meet held by the Boilermaker Aquatics, that things started to fall into place.
“The Spartan swim club comes to swim in the meet, and so my club coach went to talk to the assistant at MSU at the time seeing if they had any opportunities,” said Zoltowski. “Then through that and a couple other things, Michigan State decided to give me a chance.”
Zoltowski played many sports growing up. He started with soccer, and added baseball, football, basketball and track. Swimming came courtesy of his triplet sister Alisa.
“My sister, right before we turned 8, started swimming for the club team in the area and she did it for a summer,” said Zoltowski. “After watching her, I thought it would be fun to try, and so I did. I had some early success and I just kept going from there.”
Unlike his sister, who chose swimming as her main sport from about age 12, Zoltowski didn’t solely start focusing on swimming until high school.
Being close in age and competitive, the two competed in multiple ways growing up: from who placed higher in their event to who physically bested the other.
“When we were about 11 and 12, girl and guy swimmers are actually pretty comparable and I would get very very frustrated when she would beat me at practice,” said Zoltowski, as he added a smile.
One time in high school, that competitiveness moved into the classroom. The two had all the same classes, and a common question was, “How’d you do on that test?” No matter what the two were competing in, Zoltowski welcomed it, as he said it helped to have someone who understood what he was going through.
Now they are both in college, and their lives are still very much intertwined. Both are at Big Ten schools, both were at one point college student-athletes and both have a desire to work on the brain.
Zoltowski’s passion to work on the brain was influenced by his triplet brother Matthew, who was diagnosed with a severe case of autism at the age of two. Matthew doesn’t speak or hold conversation, only responding to phrases and questions he knows and he deals with stomach issues. Zoltowski describes not knowing what exactly is going on or how to help is frustrating.
“I grew up with friends who had brothers and you know, I have a brother too, but our relationship just wasn’t exactly the same as theirs,” said Zoltowski, who has known his brother to have autism for as long as he can remember. “I’ve always loved him, but our relationship is just different.”
His interest in the brain has always been there, and now he is motivated to not just study the brain, but see how it affects people with autism and to see if there are ways that he can help them and better their lives.
Zoltowski is majoring in electrical engineering, but plans to switch to something in computer science. A good science and math student, engineering just seemed a good fit to Zoltowski, but the important aspect was that “engineers learn tools and things that help, they design things that help people and solve problems.”
He said most people think of electrical engineering as electronics and circuits, which was never really his interest. Zoltowski is interested in the applied mathematic subfields of single processing, field data analysis, field learning, and computational analysis.
Zoltowski says that his studies of the brain in terms of autism probably won’t happen until he has his own lab and no longer needs to rely on professors, advisors, and grants, but that isn’t slowing him down.
A 4.0 student-athlete, Zoltowski has been named Distinguished Big Ten Scholar two years running, Academic All Big Ten, Honors College National Scholar and he has won several scholarships. His latest two accomplishments were being named a Rhodes Scholar finalist and landing the coveted Churchill Scholarship.
The Churchill Scholarship brings 14 candidates from the United States to study at Cambridge University for a year. Zoltowski was one of two MSU students selected for Nationals and one of 90 applicants total.
Zoltowski discovered the Churchill through the Rhodes Scholar program. After attending a Rhodes informational session in his first week on campus, Zoltowski knew that he would be applying someday. The two scholar programs are different. The Churchill, which is for math, science, and engineering students, gives a year of study at Cambridge University. The Rhodes is open to all majors, and sends students to Oxford University for two to three years. Zoltowski figured that both would be great opportunities.
Zoltowski leaves for England in September and will be working in Cambridge’s Computational and
Biological learning lab. The lab looks at machine techniques and uses them for a variety of things. Upon his return to the United States, Zoltowski hopes to continue his education in the hopes of receiving his PhD.
“Basically machine learning in a bunch of different ways and biological learning, which is looking at how neuro networks of the brain learn things,” said Zoltowski. “How do neurons process new things learned, where does it get stored in the networks, why and how?”
Academic advancement isn’t the only thing Zoltowski is looking to accomplish at Cambridge. Taking advantage of other opportunities at Cambridge, and while being in England, is on his radar. Coming off being a student-athlete here in the United State makes it not a far fetched idea for Zoltowski to find himself on Cambridge’s crew or swim team.
Being a student-athlete isn’t an easy task, and Zoltowski feels that it made him stand out from the other Churchill hopefuls.
“For the Churchill I think it [student-athlete] shows that even though I was spending a great percentage of time during the week practicing and experiencing the side effects of being tired and sleepy from waking up early, I was still able to have a perfect GPA, do some research projects and publish some papers,” said Zoltowski.
While being a student-athlete may not have been the only thing that made Zoltowski stand out, it showed a strong work ethic, good time management, and productivity. He attributes many of these skills to his high school with Michigan State helping him to strive to be the best in all that he can.
“The culture we [MSU swimming] have, really encouraged me to do my best in swimming but also in school,” said Zoltowski. “Swimming, me and Michigan State are tied together.”
Freestyle and the individual medley are Zoltowski’s main events, but he has also competed in backstroke and butterfly. He has competed in the Big Ten Championships three years running and has been continuously improving. Zoltowski also swam the eighth-fastest 400 I.M. in MSU history, at the 2013 Big Ten Championship.
“He has been a great Spartan and he has established a great work ethic in our program in regard to everything,” said MSU’s head swim coach Matt Gianiodis. “He has a lot of natural gifts and he has worked so hard to cultivate them. He is a great representative of the university and I am proud that he is a part of our program.”