As a new mechanical engineering assistant professor-in-residence, Melissa Morris is filling one of five new teaching-focused faculty positions created by the College of Engineering in its continuing effort to increase student retention and success. With her background in teaching and advising, her engagement with student groups both as a student herself and as a faculty member, the transplant from West Virginia is uniquely positioned to lift up the college’s students and show them that they, too, can be engineers.
I crashed campus here about six years ago and actually ended up running into Woosoon Yim, a mechanical engineering professor. I was in town because my parents retired to Boulder City and my husband and I would come out at the holidays to visit. I wanted to see the university, and I was really impressed with the Engineering College, and how beautiful the campus was. I was not expecting it to be so green. Then, about three years ago, we spent three weeks here during summer, to see if we could really handle the heat. I decided I wanted to work at UNLV and kept watching for a teaching-focused position to become open. When it did, I immediately applied.
What were some of your most pleasant surprises about moving to Southern Nevada?
Everyone here is very laid back and really nice. They approach and talk to you. When we were moving in, a random person, who ended up being a neighbor, walked up our driveway, welcomed us to the neighborhood, and started carrying boxes into our house. That was really nice.
Is the winter ordeal better or worse than the Las Vegas summer heat?
I will miss the snow a little bit and those times when there’s two feet of it on the ground. But I won’t miss scraping the ice off of my car or driving on icy roads. I have two French bulldogs – Frankleton and Burno – and they aren’t used to not having any grass (our yard has desert landscaping). But we’re getting sod as soon as the weather cools down so that should help.
What’s the most Vegas thing you’ve done since you got here?
My only Vegas vice is occasionally playing bingo at a Stations casino. I live in Boulder City where there’s no gambling, so an hour or two of bingo can be fun. But what I really love is that there is so much to do here off the Strip.
Tell us about an a-ha moment in your career
When I finished my B.S. in mechanical engineering, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. That’s kind of a scary place to be, so I continued on with my education. It wasn’t until I was getting my master’s degree and started advising students that I felt, "This is what I’m meant to do!" At WVU (West Virginia University) I was a teaching-focused faculty member. I did research, but it wasn’t what interested me most. What I found most rewarding was working with students. For a time I considered teaching high school or even elementary school, but my dad encouraged me to think about college level. He was a mechanical engineering professor for 30 years. I actually had him for one class. That wasn’t supposed to happen but the faculty member teaching that particular course couldn’t, so my dad stepped in. It was terrifying!
Tell us something you’re passionate about in your field.
Tau Beta Pi. It is the oldest engineering honor society and is globally recognized for engineering excellence. They have strict scholastic and character requirements for members. There’s a real benefit to current and former student members because employers in the field recognize the distinction and know you’re at the top of your class. While in college, it gives students the opportunity to meet other students with similar academic goals. But the organization is also very active even when you’re out of school, for example, networking with other alumni. I was an officer of the honor society when I was a student, a chief faculty advisor for the student chapter at WVU, and also a District 4 director. Since moving to Southern Nevada, I have become District 16 director.
How do you define success in your job?
If my students are progressing in their academic careers. I measure my success on the success of my students.
I recently received a teaching award from the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) and posted it on Facebook. A little while later, I received a card in the mail from a student who was in the very first class I ever taught telling me he never would have made it through the class without my help. That’s success. I want all of my students to feel they can do it — that they, too, can be in the engineering industry.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t sweat the small stuff. That’s what I tell my students now who stress out. If you didn’t know the answer to a question on the test, it is just one question, on one test, in one class. You can make up for it. What is the worst thing that is going to happen? I would tell myself, like I tell them now, to put things into perspective.
Tell us about a time in your life when you have been daring.
Honestly, the most daring thing I’ve done is moving here. I was born in West Virginia, went to school there, attended West Virginia University for my B.S., M.S., and Ph.D., and then worked there as a faculty member at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. There were actually three of us who went from grammar school through our Ph.D. program, together. I had friends and family who really didn’t think I’d ever leave. So leaving the only town I’ve ever known, was pretty daring for me.
Tell us about an object in your office that has significance for you.
My father was also a professor of mechanical engineering at West Virginia University. When I was in third grade, we went to an awards ceremony where he received a teaching award. I was very impressed and remember thinking that I wanted to be that good when I grew up. Fast forward to 2015 and I received that same recognition, the WVU Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching. The award is a silver bowl with that engraving on it.
How will you celebrate Halloween?
One of my favorite things to do for Halloween is to dress up my dogs and watch them run around the house in character. This year Frankleton and Burno will be dressed as stegosauruses!
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Perhaps my hobbies. I’ve been on a bowling league since I was 6-years old! Saying goodbye to my bowling team was actually one of the hardest things about leaving West Virginia. Also, I enjoy cake decorating, as well as working on cars. Some people might say that my husband and I have a “car problem” — we have a lot of cars, including my 1967 teal Mustang, most of which are still back in West Virginia right now.
People might also be surprised to find out that I got married at Meteor Crater in Arizona. We had been engaged for a year, and aren’t big wedding planners. So on one of our trips to Boulder City to visit my parents, my now-husband said, “Why don’t we get married now?” I called Meteor Crater and they closed down the park for us, then we found someone to officiate. In place of a candle lighting ceremony, we did a “nut and bolt” ceremony, using Red Loctite (a permanent locking and sealing compound for threaded fasteners) to forever bond us.