Profile: Pursuing Physics and Politics — with a Little Surfing Thrown In

As if Andrew Zwicker didn’t have his hands full heading up science education at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, he’s also Assemblyman-elect for the 16th District

Andrew Zwicker
Who: Andrew Zwicker

Age: 51

Family: Married with three children

Home: Kingston

What he does: Head of science education at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Assemblyman-elect for the 16th District, which covers parts of Hunterdon and Somerset counties and Princeton and South Brunswick.

Why you probably don’t know him: Zwicker was born in New York City, raised in Englewood, and earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in physics. He did post-doctoral work at PPPL, a national collaborative U.S. Department of Energy center for fusion energy research that is managed by Princeton University, and joined the staff.

As head of science education, Zwicker oversees a program that works with student interns, provides professional development to teachers, runs the state Science Bowl competition for students in middle and high schools and hosts, the Science on Saturday lecture series. He is also working on research in plasma fusion, a potential source of energy that Zwicker calls a “game changer” because it would be safe, clean, and readily available.

“I love it,” said Zwicker, who was named one of 75 of the nation’s “Leading Contributors” to physics education by the American Association of Physics Teachers. “I get to work with amazing students and teachers and be involved in all sorts of education outreach. And I get to do my research.” At Princeton University, he is a faculty adviser for freshmen and sophomores and a part-time lecturer in the Princeton University Writing Program.

Why you may, or will, know him: A Democrat, Zwicker pulled off the biggest upset in this year’s legislative elections, unseating a Republican incumbent to win one of two seats in the lower house representing a traditionally red district. The race in the 16th was only peripherally on the radar screens of the parties and the pundits. It became more competitive in the 2011 redistricting, but Democrats had failed to win in either of the two previous elections. The big money was spent in districts considered true battlegrounds.

But the 78-vote victory over Assemblywoman Donna Simon did not surprise Zwicker. “I thought we’d sweep,” he said. “I’m not bragging. We knew it was going to be close. We would either barely win or barely lose. We felt all the momentum was in our direction.” Just 543 votes separated top-polling Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli and Zwicker’s Democratic running mate Maureen Zella, who finished fourth. Zwicker said his campaign’s polling showed it would be close, but they intentionally kept that quiet. “We didn’t want the opposition to know how hard we were working.”

Why he ran: This was not Zwicker’s first campaign. Last year, he sought to replace Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th), when he decided to retire from Congress. He was unsuccessful in a four-person Democratic primary — Bonnie Watson Coleman, then a state assemblywoman, won the party’s nomination and the seat.

When the Democrats were looking for a candidate this year, Zwicker was “open to it.” Like many others who are drawn to public office, he grew up in a family in which politics and current events were part of daily life: his father worked on the races of local candidates in Bergen County and his mother would quiz him every day about the news. Zwicker said his frustration over the way Congress is operating, and particularly the “attack on science,” had prompted his run in 2014. This time around, it’s frustration over New Jersey’s continuing slow recovery from the recession.

“The economy and fiscal state are serious problems, so how do we drive economic growth in New Jersey?” he asked. Attracting and keeping technology and pharmaceutical companies that have “21st century jobs” should be a top priority. “Why aren’t we aggressively trying to make sure these high-tech businesses stay here or grow here?” he said. “We are being way late on this. Other states are being very aggressive.” In addition to the economy, he wants to focus on education issues.

How he plans to work in Trenton: Holt was something of a mentor to Zwicker, with whom he worked at PPPL, and like New Jersey’s previous politician-scientist, Zwicker plans to use the same scientific techniques that he uses in his work to argue for or against legislation. “We (scientists) gather data and evidence and then draw conclusions,” he said, unlike some legislators who make conclusions and then look for research to back them up. But he said he is not naive enough to discount the role politics plays in Trenton. “I don’t think I’m such a nerdy wonk that I am clueless about how the world works.”

What you may not know about him: For his 40th birthday, Zwicker bought a surfboard, headed to the Jersey Shore, and taught himself to surf. “I’ve perfected the falling,” he quipped. “It’s a frustrating sport, but once you paddle out past the break, it’s just so peaceful.”

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