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Distinguished Faculty and Staff Awards

Posted: April 16, 2014

Michael Pravica, associate professor of physics, was named Distinguished Teacher of the Year.

The College of Sciences annually recognizes outstanding faculty and staff. Learn a little more about this year's recipients:

Distinguished Teacher Award
Michael Pravica, Department of Physics and Astronomy
Ph.D., Harvard University

Growing up: Chicago, Ill.

Rebel since: 2003

Why UNLV? To join the High Pressure Science and Engineering Center (HiPSEC) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

What drew you to your profession? I always wanted to know the mechanisms of how things work. I was particularly fascinated by energy, mathematics (the language of science), and the transfer of energy. 

When did you know you wanted to be a physicist? I was very lucky as a child to have my father, who as a dedicated chemistry professor could always answer my incessant questions. At an early age, I was fascinated by the physical principles associated with matter and energy, the atom and its constituent particles, and my father would tell me,  “Those are the kinds of questions that physicists often ask.” I was also very inspired at an early age by Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla, both physicists. 

Research interests: I study matter subjected to extreme conditions (high pressure, high temperature, and high radiation flux). Most of the matter in our solar system is subjected to extreme conditions and yet we understand little about how matter behaves under these conditions (particularly when considering high pressure). I am also developing a new field of science that I call useful hard x-ray induced chemistry where I take advantage of the highly penetrating, highly focused, and highly energetic properties of hard x-rays (>7keV) to initiate novel decomposition and synthetic chemistry in situ in isolated and sealed chambers such as a diamond anvil cell.

What has surprised you about your field? The more I learn about physics, the more I realize how much I will never know. Physics has answers for many things but not everything. That said, I was always impressed by how physics does explain much about the physical world and how it is the foundation of all science.

Biggest misconception about your field: That you can only understand physics with mastery of significant mathematics and that physics has little relevance to society at large. 

Biggest challenge: From a teaching perspective, addressing and ameliorating the math deficiencies and fear of math that many students suffer from and to explain to my students why physics is so critical and beneficial for them to learn.

What makes you successful? I deeply care about how well my students learn and want to prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead. I also continue to improve my teaching, research, and service in the same spirit that I try to improve myself everyday. I also have the freedom to explore via teaching and research nature’s infinite mysteries, which is extremely exciting.

What do you want your students to take away from your teaching? I want them to have a deeper sense of and connection to the physical world including better knowledge of units that measure the physical world (meters, kilograms, seconds, etc.). I want them to understand the critical role that physics plays in much of our world, including our economy as a means to drive innovation and technology via research and vice versa. I also want them to better understand how to solve problems and to think analytically/critically so that they will be better suited to solve real world problems.

People would be surprised to know: I’m an activist and I am religious.

Outside work: I like to write, walk, hike, and bike. I also enjoy traveling and spending quality time with my family.


Distinguished Researcher Award
Brian Hedlund, School of Life Sciences
Ph.D., Microbiology, University of Washington

Growing up: Glenview, Ill., a sleepy suburb north of Chicago.

Rebel since: 2003

Why UNLV? The job market was very tough in 2002-03 when I was looking for a job and I applied for academic positions across the United States. (It is considerably more competitive now.) I had never been to Las Vegas before my job interview and I didn’t know what to expect beyond the typical Vegas fanfare. But my interview was fantastic! The faculty and students were incredibly welcoming and I felt like UNLV offered me a great chance to succeed. The mountains and desert didn’t hurt either.

What drew you to your profession? I was drawn to living creatures from a young age. I had insect collections when I was a small child and began raising monarch butterflies when I was in kindergarten, with my parents’ guidance, of course. As an undergraduate interested in life sciences, I started off as a premed but gradually learned to integrate my innate interests in the natural world with the molecular biology I was learning in classes. Microbiology was the best marriage of the two since it allowed me to explore the “dark life” I was unable to observe casually. This foundation drives my research at UNLV.

When did you know you wanted to be a biologist? I knew when I was very young but relearned during my sophomore and junior years in college.

Research interests: I have lots of interests, but two are dominant. One is to expand our knowledge of microorganisms on Earth in the broadest sense. Since the early days of microbiology, microbiologists have relied heavily on their ability to grow microorganisms in the lab as pure species, which enables very definitive experimentation. However, microorganisms seldom live as single species and nature and many thumb their noses, so to speak, at the idea that scientists want to grow them in the lab under the scientists’ terms. Currently, about 80 percent of the diversity of Bacteria and Archaea has never been grown in the lab and is basically under the scientific radar. This problem has been compared to the dark matter problem in astrophysics. I’m interested in solving this problem by studying the genomes of these organisms and designing experiments to test their predicted functions.

A second major interest is to study the effect of high temperature on life – especially from a whole ecosystem perspective. Extreme heat limits biological diversity and as a result, high-temperature ecosystems behave in very interesting ways.

I’m also beginning to move into studies more closely related to human health, particularly the gut microbial community. The gut is the major site of microbe-human interaction and recent studies have suggested a very complex and interesting interplay between humans and our gut microbiota.

What has surprised you about your field? Honestly, I’m surprised how fast my field is advancing. Parallel advancements in DNA amplification, DNA sequencing, computing, and other technologies have conspired to speed everything up way faster than I anticipated. It’s an exciting time to be a microbiologist but it’s really challenging to get ahead of the crest of the wave and stay there.

Biggest misconception about your field: The biggest misconception the public has about science, in general, is that scientists know everything. That couldn’t be further from the truth. On top of that, the scientific method demands a great deal of rigor and as a result most scientists are conservative about what they say they know. With this background, it’s frustrating to scientists that the public has no problem sometimes ignores science when it’s inconvenient.

Biggest challenge: It is difficult to juggle the different hats I wear – researcher, teacher, advisor, editor, committee member…. But the biggest challenge is matching money with talent. I compete for grant dollars with the best and brightest at “Tier 1” institutions who teach less than me and have a broader recruiting base. I’ve been very successful at UNLV but it hasn’t always been easy.

What makes you successful? First, I like to say that I’m not smart enough to stop working. This trait is really a mix of stubbornness and a love for my job. Second, I’ve been able to surround myself with some really great people who are genuinely dedicated to pushing our science forward, including folks at UNLV and many, many collaborators. I’ve published with scientists at more than 30 institutions in the last three years, including scientists on five continents! Working with so many people can be challenging but these people inspire me and give me access to expertise and technologies not available at UNLV. Third, I’m pretty good at organizing ideas and writing.

Why is it important that you involve students in your research? I'm totally dependent on my lab group for my successes. This includes my students but also my postdoctoral fellows and lab manager. These people are very smart and talented!

People would be surprised to know: I won a dance contest in junior high. My friend Andy and I wore Bermuda shorts and Chinese robes and coordinated a surfer/wipeout routine that was apparently quite novel in Illinois in the mid '80s.

Outside work: I enjoy exercising, both at the gym and on my mountain bike.