6 years ago
John Thottungal
Contributor

As seen on UTDTV

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       To see this story on UTDTV, tune in to ‘Newscast 313’ on Dec. 5 at www.utdtv.com.


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When I walked into Bruce Novak’s office on a chilly autumn morning, I expected a quick review of the dean’s many accomplishments and his goals for the future of the faculty of the School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics at UTD.
What I got instead was the chance to spend time with a wise man. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. For me, that day had come.
Although I am able to come into contact with accomplished faculty members through my Prof of the Week segment with UTDTV, I was not prepared for the story behind Novak.
The interview started off with the usual formalities and his answers flowed with ease about his goals for the faculty. When the questions arose about his past, however, was when I first realized the caliber of his story.
“When I was in high school, I was not your average student,” Novak said. “I got a lot of my A’s by participating in the work for credit program. Then I joined the Army. At the age of 22, I was taking night school courses to better my math and science skills.”
Novak said he knew he had to study his basics well if he wanted to go further in science, and during his time in the Army he was able to find himself and the confidence to accomplish anything he put his mind to.
“Even though I have received many prestigious awards later on in my life, it was the small accomplishments I made on a daily basis while in the Army that would stay with me for the rest of my life as some of my most memorable ones,” Novak said.
Novak continued to finish his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from California State University at Northridge.
“At the age of 22, it was intimidating to sit with 18 year olds who at that point in time seemed much smarter than I,” Novak said. “But towards the later years, I realized they were just as intimidated with the university environment as I was…Coming back to school after a couple of years is a hard thing to do.”
I understood how he felt going back to school because I too came back to sit in a classroom filled with 17-to-20 year olds. I know first hand how hard it is to migrate from a full-time working environment to an academic, creative environment. I knew of the financial hardships of giving up a good salary, benefits and having to leave behind any stability, even in one’s personal life.
Novak continued his story, and even though I had read his resume twice before I came for the interview, when he said he received his PhD from Caltech it had an entirely different meaning knowing that this person had to catch up on his math skills four years prior to entering one of the most rigorous math and science doctoral programs in the country. To me, it sounded like he had left Earth and flown to the stars.
In his first teaching position and laboratory work at U.C. Berkley, Novak received national recognition through the Presidential Young Investigator award and a Presidential Faculty Fellow. This man has shaken the hands of two former Presidents, George H. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The sheer humility of this man completely took me by surprise. I walked away from the interview suddenly realizing that I had just spoken to the man I would like to be someday. A person who beat enormous odds to come back to school, update his skills and step-by-step climb the ladder of success to where he sits today as the new dean of the School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics of a university that is on its way to becoming the one of the top universities in the country.
The Dean and I parted ways, possibly never to have such an in-depth conversation again, but despite the age difference, the difference in accomplishments, degrees and papers, that chilly morning, it was not just a dean I was talking to, but a teacher who clearly knew what it meant to be a student.