I'm Michael Pyrcz, an Associate Professor (Full Professor promotion announced for September 2023) in both the Cockrell School of Engineering and the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin. I teach and research multivariate, spatiotemporal modeling, data analytics, geostatistics, and machine learning.
I joined The University of Texas at Austin in the Summer of 2017 after 13 years of experience as a Reservoir Modeler, Spatial Data Analytics Research Scientist, Team Leader, and Research Program Manager in Industry. I left a successful career in the industry to be a professor. It has been a very challenging time to adjust to academia, but I'm motivated. This has been my dream for a while. To understand this you need to know a little about me.
I am a first-generation university student from a small town in Alberta, Canada, where I grew up in a low-income home with other compounding family issues such as alcoholism. I was working full-time during high school, one late school night while returning home from work I stopped at a gas station to fuel up my 1978 Mustang II. Before you think it, no, I went to High School in the early nineties, remember I was financially struggling so the car was old.
While I was fueling my car, I started a random conversation with a person fueling their vehicle on the other side of the pump. Recall, I am Canadian, so talking to strangers is something I do. Out of the blue, this individual asked me a funny question, 'Do you know how this engine works?' I was struck silent by the unexpected inquiry. This, soon to be realized, student engineer from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, then proceeded to explain the Carnot theoretical cycle and the benefit of materials engineering to increase the engine's maximum operating temperature.
I was hooked. Applied science to impact society! I had never met an engineer in my life, but that evening I realized that I was an engineer.
That week I made an appointment to visit the guidance counselor at Leduc Composite High School. It took only a quick check of my grades to prompt the terse response, "University is not for everyone, Michael". That statement hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was mad, scared and motivated. I realized that I needed to make big changes in my life. I immediately informed my employer that I would have to significantly cut my hours. I made a lot of sacrifices with less money, but I knew it was worth it. As a result, I was able to stay awake in school and have the time to complete the homework. I graduated with grades sufficient for acceptance at the University of Alberta in an engineering B.Sc.
At university, I was home! I was surrounded by so many amazing peers and faculty. I caught fire and graduated #1 in my Engineering Class (receiving the APEGA Gold Medal). It was hard, I went hungry sometimes and often I couldn’t afford my books. I struggled to pay rent, tuition, and everything else! There was always help, for example, great professors, and a wealthy brother-in-law that helped out with loans at a couple of critical moments.
The original question is, why did I become a professor? So, was this a long tangent? Not at all, if you consider what I learned through this experience. Lives are changed by education. I escaped the low-income situation of my childhood, a narrowed perspective, and have enjoyed an amazing career with so many opportunities to learn, see the world, and support my own family of five. This year my oldest will graduate from Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and my second child is in the middle of a Psychology Degree at Texas A&M! I have broken free and lifted the next generation.
All it took was one conversation, one cold, frosty evening in Leduc, Canada to open my eyes to a whole new world of opportunity. In my mind, as a professor, my opportunity to participate in outreach and mentoring and to impact lives is multiplied. For example, I stood in front of 100 at-risk high school students recently to introduce engineering as an option. I heard first-hand that for many of those students, I was the first engineer that they had met.
Whenever I work with students, post educational content on social media, or strike up a random conversation, I remember that gas station. When I say, “What starts here, changes the world.”, I lived it, I know it.