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Pictured is Brendan Mullan, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics at Point Park. | Photo by Chris Rolinson

Brendan Mullan, Ph.D., recently joined Point Park University as an assistant professor of physics in the Department of Natural Sciences and Engineering Technology. Mullan is an internationally respected astrophysicist, science communicator and education program developer and director. In 2013, he earned his doctoral degree in astronomy and astrophysics from Penn State University and was named an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic

What inspired your passion for astronomy and astrophysics?

Growing up in cloudy Buffalo, N.Y., I never had a good chance to see the stars. When I was about 10 years old, my class in elementary school took a field trip to one of the high schools in our district that had a planetarium. It was a small dome, maybe about 20 feet across, but I had never seen anything like it before.

I remember feeling excited and uneasy, not knowing what to expect when all of us squirmed our way into these dentist office-like chairs that were lined up under this dome. As the lights dimmed and the background music turned on, these innumerable pinpricks of light started to appear on the dome's surface. Soon it was pitch black, and our vision was filled with thousands of stars.

For me, it was this threshold moment of being presented with a cosmos much, much bigger than I could have possibly imagined. As this planetarium show continued and we learned about the lives and deaths of stars, our Milky Way Galaxy, and the galaxies beyond, I decided that I just had to know everything about the universe. Everything else seemed so trivial in comparison. I mean, it's literally the whole Universe we're talking about. What could be more profound, more important than that?

Why did you decide to teach at Point Park University?

This is a dream job for me. I get to talk about and teach what I love - physics, math and the logic and language of the universe around us. I get to be on my feet, interacting with students, and joining them on their journey to becoming science-minded professionals. When I was in grad school, I enjoyed teaching undergraduates the most. I still can't believe that I get to do that for most of my time here.

What have you enjoyed about Point Park so far?

Well, for purely selfish reasons I enjoy the Downtown location. There's just so much palpable energy here, and it helps power me through the day. But in terms of the people in this community, I have to say that I appreciate and admire the diverse student population. I've got a mixture of people in my classes including the "traditional" straight-from-high-school crowd, folks who are coming to college after working or serving in the military and a lot of people from abroad. The best educational environment is a diverse, welcoming one with a range of perspectives and learning styles, and that's exactly what we've got here.

How do you incorporate a sense of humor into the complex topics you teach?

I would describe my sense of humor as, "unflinchingly awkward and specific." I like to tie in the most absurdly arcane pop cultural references I can to the kinds of physical situations we're studying. I've stumbled into delivering them in an awkwardly meta way that only a nerdy astrophysicist with a lifetime of looking in on our society's evolving media and culture can.

What advice do you have for our students in the Department of Natural Sciences and Engineering Technology?

I would say that they should remember that what they're really learning is a way of thinking, not a whole bunch of facts. The real innovators of the world learn and apply critical thinking and creative problem solving skills. If you think you can get there by just knowing facts, I can almost guarantee that a computer (a device designed to know and find facts) already has your job and can do it better, anyway.

Final thoughts?

Always staple your homework. That thing you do where you fold the corners of the pages in doesn't really work. The pages still go everywhere. Just FYI.


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