Matthew Povich Receives Provost’s Award for Excellence in Scholarly and Creative Activities

picture of nebulae, and Mathew Povich and students

Top left image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Milky Way Project, bottom left, alumnus Tharindu Jayasinghe (‘17, physics) with Matthew Povich, pictured right are Povich with alumnus Evan Nuñez (‘19, physics).

Each year, three CPP professors are honored with Provost's Awards. The 2019-2020 recipient of the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Scholarly and Creative Activities is Associate Professor Matthew Povich from the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Povich received his Bachelor’s Degree from Harvard University in 2000 and worked in the Peace Corps for two years before returning to work at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Povich went on to obtain his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2009 and spent three years as an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at the Pennsylvania State University before coming to CPP in 2012.

The Provost Award for Excellence in Scholarly and Creative Activities was awarded to Povich for his research work with students. Povich worked on the Milky Way Project with CPP undergraduate students Tharindu Jayasinghe (‘17, physics) and Don Dixon (‘17, physics). “This project took astronomical survey data and produced images to classify phenomena such as interstellar bubbles and stellar-wind bow shocks in the Galaxy,” said Povich. “The people-powered research platform is called the Zooniverse, and anyone can use the platform, make drawings, and interact with it. By studying baby stars and the gas and dust around them, we learn about the environments in which stars are born as well as how the stars sculpt the nebulae.” The Milky Way Project team, led by Povich, cataloged 2600 nebulae based on volunteer contributions over a span of eight years. In 2019 Povich and his team published the article, “The Milky Way Project second data release: bubbles and bow shocks,” led by Jayasinghe and with three other CPP students listed as co-authors. This article acknowledges the work of tens of thousands of volunteer “citizen scientists” around the world.

In 2015, Povich received a prestigious NSF CAREER Award. With this five-year grant, he was able to hire the first postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, write several papers, cover travel for his research group to conferences, buy equipment, and pay students that work for him over the summer. This award ends in June, 2020, but Povich has another NSF proposal and one NASA proposal pending.

Povich emphasizes the importance of recognizing good, supportive qualities in mentors and looking for those qualities in future colleagues. “I was fortunate to have good mentors but not by complete luck,” recalled Povich. “When choosing a graduate program, you are choosing who you want to work with, so I chose people my undergraduate mentors had worked with who were humble and helpful.”

Povich strives to be a good mentor. “I tell my students not to be intimidated by me. I want them to be open with me and not be afraid to ask me questions. I have to gauge my expectations based upon each student’s demonstrated abilities. Some can handle anything quite independently, some require more direct guidance, and those that are just starting out need an interesting project to ignite their interest.”

Povich believes in providing as much support as possible to students. “With Cal Poly Pomona’s diverse student body, we have people who are first generation students, underrepresented minorities, marginalized and high-risk students - they need support and professors who believe in them,” said Povich. “I am always adapting, and thinking, ‘what can I do for my students?’ Everyone has a different background, and working with CPP students is an absolute joy.”

When asked how Cal Poly Pomona compares to other schools, he said “The professors are down to earth and collaborative instead of competitive. I have noticed that CPP students are more respectful and less entitled compared to some of their peers from more privileged backgrounds.”

Povich wants to improve measurements of the speed at which galaxies make stars. “Astronomers have done these measurements for a long time and in many different ways, but how accurate are they really?” He currently has a paper in the works with Evan Nuñez (‘19, physics) entitled “Characterizing the X-ray Emission of Intermediate-Mass Pre-Main-Sequence Stars.” Nuñez, a former Cal-Bridge scholar, is now pursuing a Ph.D. at Caltech.

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