Faculty Research Mentor Spotlight: Michael Pravica, Ph.D.
Michael Pravica, Ph.D., Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Sciences, studies matter at extreme conditions of high pressure, temperature, and radiation flux. Recently, Dr. Pravica applied for and was awarded the OUR 2021 Undergraduate Research Stimulus Program’s Track 1: Undergraduate Research Mentor-Mentee Program (MMP). The program supports faculty research mentors with $2,000 in funding and undergraduate researchers with $1,500 each. Through this program, he mentors for four undergraduate researchers: Angelica Diaz Tremillo, Nicholas Pudar, Kevin Ayala Pineda, and Drake Joseph.
Describe your current role and research interests.
I supervise various experiments. My research interests are rather wide: 1) I study the behavior of matter subjected to extreme conditions of pressure, temperature, and highly ionizing radiation. 2) I use x-rays and other highly ionizing radiation to initiate novel chemistry which I call useful hard x-ray photochemistry. 3) I am currently trying to use monochromatic x-rays to selectively damage the interior of viruses to denature them but minimally damage the viral capsid (coat) via certain resonantly damaging behavior I have observed with similar ringed and organic molecular systems in the past to create a high quality vaccine. 4) We are currently trying the same selective damage ideas using electrochemistry to damage DNA/RNA constituents (e.g. nucleic acids) and a trial virus (Tobacco Mosaic Virus - TMV) to verify that we can damage these materials and that due to differential electrical conductivity between various viral components, we can selectively damage the genetic viral components so we can denature them. Preliminary results are promising!
What inspired you to start conducting research and what motivates you to pursue research in your field?
I have always had a lifelong curiosity about Nature and the mechanisms underlying our universe. I always had a deep desire to use knowledge gained through research to help humanity. Given the hardships much of humanity have had to bear associated with this pandemic and past pandemics, I seek to help avert future pandemics by easily creating vaccines when the need arises.
How do you define undergraduate research and why do you recommend getting involved in research?
Research is by definition seeking answers to questions you have by whatever means necessary. Anytime a student seeks these answers, they are doing research. Often, the answers are not easy to obtain or more questions are provoked by the process. This helps train students to be prepared to struggle and also prepares them to solve problems at a time when our society needs problem solvers. As many of my former (and current) students have been included as coauthors on my published papers, I don't draw much of a distinction between undergraduate and graduate student research except that typically undergraduate students start out with a little bit less experience and knowledge than graduate students. But they make up for this quickly.
What advice would you give to undergraduates looking to become involved in research?
As an undergraduate, I was lucky to perform research for which I published two papers. This more than anything prepared me for graduate school and got me admitted into excellent graduate schools. UNLV offers tremendous opportunities for undergraduate students to perform research more than many schools. I encourage UNLV undergraduates to take advantage of these opportunities.
What is the process for students interested in conducting research under your mentorship?
Typically, a student contacts me and we meet to discuss their interests and my research projects and how they might fit in. Then, pending further interest, they work with my students to "learn the ropes" in the laboratory. Then, once they garner more experience, I often give them their own project for them to work on some months later.
How has the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) supported your research endeavors?
I have had many undergraduate students supported by OUR over the years. OUR has not only given these students financial support to work with me but also to purchase supplies. I have also had financial support to purchase supplies which have been a big help for me.
What drove you to apply for the OUR 2021 Undergraduate Research Stimulus Program?
I sought to find support for my students to do research with me. A number of them were volunteering to work in my lab.
How has the OUR 2021 Undergraduate Research Stimulus Program helped you and your undergraduate mentee/s?
The funding has enabled my students to focus on working on their projects. It has also given me support to purchase supplies for the experiments.