Br. Robert Novak, Ph.D. ’72

A well-rounded Iona experience

Iona logoAs an alumnus, a Christian Brother, faculty moderator of the rowing teams and professor/chair of the physics department, Brother Novak’s experience and influence at Iona spans many areas. He has seen countless students go on to move the world after they have absorbed the College’s dedication to a spirit of community, pride, faith, and teamwork. Holding a physics degree for his bachelor's, master’s, and Ph.D., from Iona ‘72, Stevens Institute of Technology ‘77, and Columbia University ‘80 respectively, Brother Novak is a native of Newark, N.J. (Essex Catholic High School).

“When I began Iona College, my plan was to major in Mathematics, but when I was registering for my Sophomore Year, I told my advisor, Br. Paul Hennessy, that I wanted to major in math, but I was interested in taking a Physics Course. He suggested that I should major in Physics instead and take extra math courses. Looking back, that was a good choice to make since I have always found the Physics to be interesting.”

He was inspired to focus his work on atomic and molecular physics and began working with the Planetary Science Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, studying the gases of a comet or the atmosphere of Mars. His study has been specializing in the atmosphere of Mars. To date, the most significant discovery has been identifying the gas methane on Mars. Brother Novak was a co-author of a paper that was published in 2009 in the Journal of Science, which has been cited by about 300 other Journal articles.

A prideful achievement for Brother Novak was receiving the Br. Arthur Loftus Award for Achievement in Science (2007). Making this especially meaningful was the honor of receiving an award named after Brother Loftus, who was his high school mathematics teacher during his third year of high school.

A faculty member since 1976, Brother Novak advocates for Iona’s core curriculum because he believes that students need to take courses in a variety of disciplines to develop skills that they will use in the future. While the values-based education at Iona is present in the curriculum, students also find other avenues where true life lessons are gained. These include opportunities offered through campus ministries and participation in national and international service.

“One of our current students was so inspired by a service trip to Zambia that she started a foundation to support projects in Africa," Brother Novak said. "She and her mother funded the development of three different water wells in Sierra Leone.”

Most recently, Brother Novak presented a paper at the 50th Division of the Planetary Society of the American Astronomical Society meeting - Knoxville, TN October 2018. The paper was based on data taken at the NASA-Infrared Telescope (Mauna Kea, Hawaii) in January 2018. So far, he has only analyzed a small fraction of the data but has identified methane released from the ground through a plume of gas, that included water vapor. He is currently continuing his collaboration with the Planetary Science Group at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center and working with students on analyzing the data collected.

His advice to new students is to “take their courses seriously and learn as much as they can. So much of what will be done in their lives will depend on what they learn in college.”

Move the World: Stories