John Zicarelli honored with ASU Charles Wexler Teaching Award

John Zicarelli is the recipient of the 2023 Charles Wexler Teaching Award, presented each year to an outstanding teacher of undergraduate mathematics at Arizona State University.

He was selected by the awards committee based on nominations made by undergraduate students with majors in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

“Receiving this award is an incredible honor,” Zicarelli said. “I’m blessed to work with so many wonderful students and my colleagues in the actuarial science program. This is beyond anything I expected could happen!”

Zicarelli joined ASU as a professor of practice in 2017 and has been an adjunct faculty member off and on since 1996. He has taught courses in actuarial science, data science and mathematics, but his favorite course to teach is ACT 420: Ratemaking and Reserving.

“It was one of the first courses I created from scratch here, and it covers the two most important work assignments for actuaries,” he said.

Zicarelli was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and spent most of his early childhood in Evanston, Illinois. His family moved to a suburb of Minneapolis where he lived until his mid-30s. He then took a job in the San Francisco Bay area and eventually moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. He also lived in western North Dakota between 1982 and 1985, on a potato farm.

Zicarelli was an actuary for over 30 years, but his career could have turned out much differently had the U.S. economy not suffered a major recession in the 1970s, including record post-war unemployment.

“I was always interested in math, but I was inspired to major in it and study it at the graduate level because of three amazing professors at St. Olaf College. I got another boost when I met Richard McGehee at the University of Minnesota, who became my dissertation advisor. I attempted to get a teaching position when I finished my PhD in 1975, but due to economic conditions at the time, nobody was hiring,” Zicarelli said. “So, I found a job as an actuary trainee that led to an interesting and successful career.”

In 2009, he retired from Scottsdale Insurance Company as vice president of strategy and risk management. Prior to that position, he led much of the company's strategy work as vice president of actuarial and chief actuary. He also served as chairman of CAME, LLC., a family-owned and operated private equity investment company. Zicarelli completed a fellowship in the Casualty Actuarial Society, is a chartered financial analyst and is also a member of Scottsdale Leadership.

“When I reached retirement age, I decided it was time for a new career, and here I am,” he said.

Zicarelli created the Actuarial Science Scholarship, which encourages students to pursue careers in the actuarial field. He also regularly supports the school’s fund for actuarial exam reimbursements.

Zicarelli teaches actuarial science courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels, but his enthusiasm for the undergraduate courses stands out, as evidenced by the positive comments from students about his undergraduate courses.

  • "I liked how the course encouraged thought behind meaningful data analysis rather than coding for the sake of coding. Understanding behind the data especially in projects helped me make valuable visualizations."
  • "Very engaging with the class and promotes class discussion on the material. Explained difficult concepts in different ways to make it clear."
  • "Dr. Zicarelli is the nicest guy ever, always so friendly and so helpful."
  • "I liked how the professor became interested in what the students were asking him about the course material. He was helpful in understanding the new topics and explaining new things."
  • "Dr. Zicarelli is very approachable and has been more than happy to work through any problems I might have. He has also given good, specific feedback to assignments where I feel like I'm learning from my mistakes. He also very obviously knows a lot about the subject."

Several students who nominated Zicarelli for the teaching award also saw him as a role model.

“Dr. Zicarelli is extremely passionate about teaching and helping students prepare for their careers," one student said. "The projects he comes up with for his classes are always creative and applicable to real work we might do in our careers. Dr. Zicarelli was also one of my committee members for both my undergraduate honors thesis and for my master’s applied project, and he serves on thesis committees and as the thesis director for many other students. He really cares about his students and always attends our end-of-semester actuarial science graduation celebration, where he helps with presenting the accomplishments of the graduates, almost all of whom he’s had in his classes over the years.”

“Dr. Zicarelli has always been a professor that I am excited to learn from when I am lucky enough to have him as a professor," another student said. "He is dedicated to making sure that we can see how the information we are learning in class is actually applicable to what we will be doing in real life. ... I have also had the opportunity to work with him on an outside project through the ACT Lab and he was a fantastic mentor throughout the process. He made sure to highlight the work his students did by allowing us to present on the project when the time came, as well as making time to help us through tough spots.’”

The Charles Wexler Teaching Award was established in 1977, in memory of Professor Charles Wexler, with a gift from his wife, Helen, to honor his accomplishments in the field of mathematics and his contributions to the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. Wexler was the founding chairman of the Department of Mathematics at ASU. At the time of his retirement, he had accumulated 47 years of service, the longest period of faculty service in the university’s history. In 1977, the A-Wing of the Physical Sciences Center was named after Wexler in appreciation of his outstanding service to the university from 1930 until 1977. The 46th annual Charles Wexler Awards ceremony was held in March in Charles Wexler Hall.

“John brings wisdom and real-world experience to the classroom, which excites the students. His friendly demeanor and enthusiasm make him approachable. He truly embodies the values of the Charles Wexler Teaching Award,” said Donatella Danielli, professor and director of the school. “We are lucky to have him in our school.”

We asked Zicarelli to share more about his experiences at ASU.

Question: What do you like most about teaching actuarial science and mathematics?

Answer: I am doing this because I want to share my experience as an actuary and business leader with students nearing the beginning of their careers. The time I spend interacting with them inside and outside the classroom is a gift every day.

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I was surprised, and gratified, by the support the actuarial program has received from both the local industry and the national actuarial societies. I knew we had something special going on here, but it always nice to get recognition.

Q: What advice would you give to incoming college students thinking of possibly majoring in mathematics (or actuarial science)?

A: For students with math skills, there are an incredible variety of opportunities available both at ASU and after graduation. Be open to trying something new.

Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about mathematics by the general public?

A: That math is fun and exciting.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time for fun?

A: Play piano. I am equally into Bach fugues and piano jazz.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would probably give it to my colleagues who are young enough to be able to do something meaningful for the planet.

Rhonda Olson