As a young man, guitar-playing Matt Pusko may not have known what his future career would be, but the seeds were planted early and frequently. An aptitude for STEM subjects, positive experiences with faculty at a teaching college, and research and teaching opportunities at UNLV all led him to his current role as assistant professor-in-residence in the College of Engineering.
Now, he says, his career is striking all the right chords. “In my current role, helping students, I never go home without feeling gratified.”
What brought you to UNLV?
While I was getting my undergraduate and master’s degrees in Texas, all of my family moved out of state to Las Vegas. So I came out here and immediately applied to UNLV because I knew I wanted to get my doctorate in physics or engineering.
I looked at what research was being done on campus and the thing that really intrigued me was the future of materials. Things like carbon nanotubes, graphene and other nanostructures -- the materials that dictate how awesome and small things like your iPhone are. I saw a lot of this research being done in the engineering, physics and chemistry departments here. But I really liked the renewable energy research that was being done in engineering. I got in with mechanical engineering professor Jaeyun Moon, who took me under her wing, and started working on thermoelectric nanomaterials.
As an alumnus with a doctorate, what kept you here?
As a graduate student I was asked if I wanted to teach a course section for dynamics. I loved it, the students seemed to like me, and I continued to teach it.
While working on my doctorate I felt the research wasn’t as gratifying as I thought it would be. But I really enjoyed teaching and working with students. Then I was approached about teaching our Introduction to Engineering Experience course for freshman. The seminar was designed to introduce students to all of the different engineering programs in the college and includes topics like professional ethics, technical communication and getting new students acclimated to campus and all of the resources available. It was created to help improve student experience, retention and graduation rates.
I realized that helping students succeed is what I wanted to do. At the same time the college was growing the number of professor-in-residence positions it had, so I applied and was hired! It is truly a perfect fit.
You have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in physics. Tell us about that.
I studied physics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. It’s known as a teaching college — they teach teachers how to teach.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I entered the school, and actually went in as an accounting major. But I gave up finance and when looking down the list of interesting topics, the one topic I thought I probably couldn’t teach myself was physics. That intrigued me. So I took physics and absolutely loved it. I was lucky to have fantastic instructors. I pulled a lot of their teaching skills, honestly, and give them a lot of credit for the methods I use.
You’re currently teaching physics for the College of Engineering. How did that come about?
Yes I am, and it is an honor. The college is focusing a lot on student success. The professors-in-residence like myself are literally here to make sure our students do well in their engineering courses, improve their retention and graduation rates, and keep them in engineering fields. Often what limits that, well, it tends to be physics and calculus that turn students away. Everything we do in engineering is applied mathematics. But students didn’t know how to apply what they were learning in physics classes.
So working together, the deans of engineering and sciences decided to test out having an engineering professor teach physics 180 — Physics for Scientists and Engineers — to our engineering students. I started teaching it a year ago during the pandemic. I was actually quite nervous going 100 percent online. I had 125 students, all remote, but I got rave reviews. We give them solid examples of what the concepts mean, and work problems to let them know what this can be used for in engineering, showing there’s value to it.
Next semester I’ll be teaching physics 181 as well, following my students from 180 for continuity, which will hopefully lead to even more student success.
I’ll eventually be teaching the calculus series, too. I love turning students into problem solvers.
What has been your greatest day on campus?
There were two, and they were very close together: defending my dissertation; and the day I interviewed for my current faculty position. These two events took place within two weeks of each other.
What did you previously want to do when you grew up?
I’ve played guitar for 28 years. I’ve had a couple times when I thought maybe I’d be a famous musician. Or a pilot; I’ve got a real love for aviation. But the thing that always came naturally was the sciences. I didn’t have to work too hard in school to make them click. So I felt anything related to that was probably going to be my future.
I do still play guitar. I’ve recorded some albums with an old band I was in, but now I really play it for myself. It’s relaxing in the sense that I have to block everything else out to do it.
What is something you’ve learned from a student?
One of the most important things I learned was when a peer-mentoring program. We choose excellent students to run and be peer mentors. But after running it for a little while, I realized that they need help too. They may feel like they’ve made it this far, they don’t want to ask for help. Maybe they’ve never had to ask for help before. But even our best students need assistance. They need to know how to use the resources, they need support.
Do you have any advice for your younger self?
Probably two things. First, I don’t think I used to put in 100 percent. I’ve put in that and more over the past five years to get where I’m at, and it’s definitely shown. Math and science in high school was easy for me, I didn’t have to put a lot of effort into it. I didn’t have to do any homework. If I had worked harder, maybe I would have had even better opportunities for school.
The other piece of advice is to persevere. That’s my favorite word and I try to use it as often as possible with my students. It’s not just about the success, it’s about the struggle and persevering through that struggle to success. Not giving up.