“There’s really no such thing as long-range planning,” chuckles Dr. Tom Novak as he reviews his diverse professional experience. “If, when I was in high school, you would have told me I would be a university professor for over 30 years, I would have said you were nuts! But I took advantage of opportunities when they were there.”
Seizing opportunities is a defining characteristic of Dr. Novak’s extensive and lauded career in mining engineering, a trend which began as a high school student in southwestern Pennsylvania. “I never planned to work in the mining industry. I was interested in electrical engineering, and a steel company representative whose company operated several coal mines came to my high school to talk about their co-op program. It was set up at Penn State University and students went to school for six months and then worked for six months. I applied and was awarded a spot in the co-op doing electrical engineering while attending Penn State.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Dr. Novak was recruited by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in Pittsburgh, where he first began to research mine safety. While with the Bureau, another unforeseen opening emerged. “The Bureau of Mines offered a program where I could earn a graduate degree while working for them. I already had an electrical engineering background, so I got a master’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Pittsburgh,” he recalls.
The educational opportunities continued to present themselves. “After I got my master’s degree, Penn State contacted me about being an instructor of their mining technology courses. In return, I got time off to pursue my Ph.D. coursework and research. I jumped at that chance.” After obtaining his Ph.D in 1983, Dr. Novak visited the University of Alabama, where he—and his wife, Debbie—were offered assistant professorships. “The College of Nursing offered her a job on the spot,” Dr. Novak laughs. “They took a little longer with me.” The couple spent the next 18 years in Tuscaloosa, teaching at the university and raising their two sons.
After Alabama’s mining engineering program closed in 1995, Dr. Novak held a variety of positions including Professor of Electrical Engineering, Interim Department Head of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics and Department Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Although Alabama had become home, Dr. Novak wanted to return to mining engineering, a decision which led him to Virginia Tech where he was Department Head of Mining and Minerals Engineering for seven years.
Dr. Novak’s career took another unexpected turn in 2006 when he was asked to serve as an investigator of the Sago Mine Disaster. Increased concerns for mine safety led the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to recruit Dr. Novak to serve as Division Director of the Mining Science and Technology’s Office of Mine Safety and Health Research. Describing the decision to leave a profession he had enjoyed for 30 years, Dr. Novak says, “I had been in academia for a long time. Sometimes you ask yourself, ‘Should I try something different?’ So I decided to do it. But my time at NIOSH reinforced what I already knew—I love being a professor.”
When UK announced an opening for its Alliance Coal Academic Chair, Dr. Novak saw a chance to move back to the university and into a mining engineering program he believes is one of the best in the nation. “When I was considering leaving NIOSH, there were only a couple of schools I’d consider leaving for and UK was one of them.” He joined the mining engineering faculty in November of 2010.
Dr. Novak’s broad and varied experience makes him a valuable resource to UK mining engineering students on subjects ranging from mine valuation to systems analysis to automation and control. In addition, his understanding of the mining industry allows him to connect what he teaches in the classroom to what students will experience in the workplace. “You’re always going to have strong theoretical components as an engineer, but I always try to relate those aspects to real world experiences I’ve had and describe how the techniques and methodologies students are learning will someday apply to real-world situations. And this is a great time to get into mining. There is incredible opportunity out there for the motivated young employee.”