6 years ago
Zoe Wilson
Mercury

UTD will welcome the new dean of Natural Sciences on Sept. 19. Bruce Novak, a highly noted chemist, veteran and acclaimed educator hailing from North Carolina State University, has accepted the deanship.

The trajectory of Novak’s life can be traced to a beginning in the military as he put himself through school by serving in the army from 1973 to 1977. Through the G.I. bill, Novak was able to receive bachelor and master degrees from California State University at Northridge. He then moved on to the California Institute of Technology for his Ph.D., thereby taking his first steps in a very fruitful career.

For those who specialize in a hard science such as chemistry, there exists two major career paths down which to travel: an industrial job at a major corporation or a professorate job in academia. For Novak, the proper professional route was elucidated during the employment-seeking process.

“After the first couple of interviews, it became clear that a job in industry was not for me,” Novak said. “Working at an industrial job meant concentrating on somebody else’s ideas.”

An individualist, the idea of trail blazing appealed to Novak and cemented his future as an educator and researcher.

“It became clear that I would have the freedom to explore what I wanted to do if I worked in an academic field,” Novak said. “I would be given a room and some cash to work on my ideas.”

Novak decided to accept a professorate at the University of California at Berkeley. Since the origin of his academic career, Novak said he has enjoyed an extremely productive and fulfilling career ranging over several decades and multiple universities from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to the Universite’ de Louvain in Belgium.

“My favorite thing is transforming Organic Chemistry, a subject that everybody fears and loathes, into everybody’s favorite class,” Novak said.

In fact, while working at North Carolina State, Novak received the Most Loved Professor award from MyEdu.com; an impressive feat considering the rigorous reputation of organic chemistry among any student body. Novak’s passion for his subject evidently yields remarkable results.

“When a student comes and makes something brand new that man has never seen before it is a great source of energy and excitement,” Novak said. “The serendipity — accidental discovery of a completely new material or concept — is tremendously exhilarating.  It makes every day a new adventure in the laboratory.”

Chemistry — a science that involves drawing from convention to generate unique ideas about the world and its most basic mechanisms — suits a maverick such as Novak perfectly. His character reveals itself in one of Novak’s favorite hobbies, which amounts to scuba diving with a challenging twist. He dives off the coast of North Carolina, where thousands of sunken vessels from both World Wars and even from the civil war lie eerily preserved.

“It’s thrilling to be able to see these vignettes of history through which few tread,” Novak said. “These are some of the more challenging dives in the world because of the strong current and sheer depth of the water. It takes seasoning to be able to do it.”

For Novak, actively doing what he loves, day in and day out is a gratifying philosophy that he applies not only to deep water wreck diving but also to his profession.

“I’ve been very successful in teaching,” Novak said. “I love interacting with students at all levels — undergraduate and graduate. It has been a satisfying chapter in my career.”

As the North Carolina State chapter of Novak’s life comes to a close, his UTD chapter opens to a crisp, blank page.

“I really want to make an impact in the area of growing an institution, making UTD a great university,” Novak said. “Because the UT system has the wherewithal to innovate, UT Dallas is chalked full of opportunities to excel.”

UTD attracted Novak because of the dynamic ambition shown by the university and its faculty.

“When I search through the webpages of top universities, hundreds of schools state that they have grand aspirations for improvement,” Novak said. “In my experience, these are just hollow words. UT Dallas is very different, the president and provost are both very energetic and really want to grow this institution.”

Novak said he takes his newfound responsibility seriously. To achieve his goals for the university and specifically, the department of Natural Sciences, he maps out a plan for success.

“We will attract new faculty at all levels. Go after the very best faculty, grads and undergrads,” Novak said. “Students are the backbone of a university. A tremendous amount of effort will go into recruitment. We will also focus on building new and better facilities that will allow research-active faculty to succeed in their endeavors.”

The objective-oriented Novak manages to link his personal and professional goals to achieve a larger purpose.

“We only have a short time in life and this is one way I can make a difference — I cannot think of a better way than through education,” Novak said.