This piece is part of Meet Minerva, a series of interviews introducing the Minerva community to the humans behind the school’s policies and classes. This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
Ha Nguyen: Could you tell us a bit about your life?
Lucas Tambasco: Sure! So, starting from the very beginning, I was born in Brazil. Yes, I’m originally from Brazil, not Turkey (as there were some rumors last semester). I lived in Brazil until I was 12 years old, then I moved to Miami with my family. They said, “Oh, you’re going to live close to Disney World!” and I was like “Okay, that sounds exciting!” It was my first time flying abroad, so it was very exciting.
I lived in Miami until I did undergrad, so it was six years of my life in Miami, then I moved to Boston where I stayed for a very long time. I did both my undergrad and Ph.D. at MIT. My undergrad was in Math and Physics, so I double majored and had a minor. I regret being so spread out. So, a word of warning: adding more things won’t necessarily impress people. Most likely, nobody knows what your minor is.
During my undergrad, I met my Ph.D. advisor. He was my undergrad freshman advisor. He was a very nice person, and he would host events for his advisees like a barbeque for the entire group once a year. I started doing research in my sophomore and junior year. Then I [realized that] I really want to teach, and if I want to teach for a college institution, I need a Ph.D. So, thinking about that and the great relationship I had with the advisor, I thought it would be great to continue working on what I was doing from my undergrad. I also had the opportunity to be a TA and to become a better educator and researcher in the process. That’s how I ended up doing my Ph.D. I worked with the same advisor, so we were together for a total of nine years, from my freshman year to the end of my Ph.D.! He’s a great person, so it was a very nice experience overall. Of course, Ph.Ds have ups and downs. I won’t get into the details, but overall it was a great experience, and I got a lot of opportunities to engage in teaching initiatives at MIT. Any time someone needed a TA in a class that no one else wanted to TA, I’d raise my hand and be the first: “Yes, I will TA that class in complex analysis!” and “Yes, call me, I’ll take that!”
The fun thing is that with all of these opportunities, I got engaged with both live MIT classes, as well as online MITx courses. So I started making videos back in the day. And I got to be the instructor by myself for Calculus I at MIT for three years in the spring semester (the fall had a regular faculty teaching). I was able to teach that calculus class for three semesters, which was awesome. With all these experiences, I kind of knew that I wanted to be doing this. I love teaching and am excited about math. I think this sums up my teaching philosophy: there is no such thing as a “math person.” Anyone can come to love and appreciate math with the right tools and resources.
HN: Let’s wind it back a bit. Was there an event in the past that fueled your enthusiasm for math and physics, or did you just know all along that you love these subjects?
LT: We need to rewind further back. My grandfather was a math professor. Back when I was a kid, I think he secretly imparted this philosophy of making math approachable without me ever knowing that I was doing math. We watched the Indiana Jones movies together when I was a kid, and in the third movie, “The Last Crusade,” Indiana Jones had to overcome some challenges to reach the Holy Grail. My grandpa would come up with fun puzzles for me to solve, like those Indiana Jones would have to go through. So he made math fun. He also took a course in astronomy. He would come to me and be like “Oh, I’m taking this class about stars.” And I was like, “That’s cool!” He would tell me things about stars and planets and the sun. As a little kid, I was just excited to hear these things. I think my passion and curiosity started for these topics because they were not seen as “work” at all. They were not seen as a burden. They were not seen as a chore. They were seen as just something fun, something exciting. I owe some of that to him.
But in my MIT years, I took a class as an undergrad called Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos. That class was awesome. It was taught by an engineering professor, so it combined the math theories with applications. The professor actually brought the systems to class. These wheels full of buckets and wires would spin in a chaotic fashion and that was awesome! I’d seen a model, I’d analysed a model to see how it works, and he brings the physical system to class that does what the model is predicting! I thought it was the perfect match of theory, simulations, and experiment that really caught my eyes in a more professional sense.
I think my passion and curiosity started for these topics because they were not seen as “work” at all. They were not seen as a burden. They were not seen as a chore. They were seen as just something fun, something exciting.
HN: That sounds awesome! You mentioned that you taught for a few years before joining Minerva. Why did you decide to work for Minerva?
LT: During my years at MIT I was very lucky to work with students that were generally motivated and interested in the subjects that I taught. I like teaching students that are not motivated, it’s a whole different challenge. But working with students that are motivated is also very rewarding. That was one thing I was looking for in the institution that I wanted to work.
An institution that allows me to work from anywhere was also a very important piece of the puzzle. I have seen many cases of families that had to endure separation because of their jobs, and that is something I did not want to go through. I am so glad that, since I joined Minerva, I was able to move to where my now-fiancée lives
And I was very excited about changing higher education. I’ve worked at MIT, which is a great, reputable institution. But I felt that even there, there were issues about the focus on teaching. Their research is uncontested. They are very proud of the MIT research, but I personally saw many places where the education, the teaching, could be more valued. I wanted to be in an institution that values teaching, and I think Minerva really does that.
HN: What’s your favorite memory from teaching at Minerva?
LT: So many great things come to mind! It’s been such a fun experience. First of all, I can say that I really connected with all of my classes in the past year, both CS111A and CS111B. We were able to form really cool groups, and we really got a lot of work done. I have a few memories from the Forum that were very happy. There was a student, he would have what he called “mind-blown moments.” Every once in a while he’d say, “Professor, this was mind-blowing!” It was really exciting. I had an AMA (Ask Me Anything) during the last days of classes, and one of my students asked me, “Professor, how can you always be so happy?” That was so rewarding. I felt very happy to be in an environment where I am legitimately happy; I don’t have to try to be happy because my students, my classes, my group of peers, and other faculty have been amazing.
But I do have to say that my best Minerva memory has been meeting students face-to-face. I love the platform, but it’s always exciting to meet in person. I had one student visit me in New Haven. I had one student where we accidentally ended up in the same vacation location at the same time. I met a few students in Boston and New York. And I visited Buenos Aires last spring and Berlin this fall. Just having a chance to sit down with students without any of that math in between us, when we can just chat about their plans, life at Minerva, and maybe even answer the same questions you are asking me in this interview, like “why am I doing this?” is really exciting. I feel that even though most of our interactions are online, I get to connect with the students beyond just the math content. Meeting the students and having coffee with them was great to the extent that I want to know a little bit about their lives, why they chose Minerva, and how their experience is going. I like this level of personal interaction. I feel closer to my students here than I was in other places I worked.
HN: What are you most proud of in life?
LT: That’s tricky. I’m proud of many things. I’ve found a lot of perfect things in my life. I’m very proud of being able to work doing what I love and living with someone who supports me 100 percent. That has been amazing. It’s hard to pinpoint one moment.
HN: Let’s zoom it in a bit. What are you most proud of that’s related to Minerva?
LT: I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with CS111. I’m proud of the videos we made over the past year. I think we designed a class that’s suited for our students. It might not work in other places, but it’s Minerva, we do things differently! We got the feedback to make me proud of it. We tried to make something that is accessible while still challenging. But we’re not done; we’re always trying to improve.
I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with CS111. I think we designed a class that’s suited for our students. It might not work in other places, but it’s Minerva, we do things differently!
HN: What do you do outside of Minerva?
LT: I don’t have any other position. I’m dedicated full-time to Minerva. But in terms of hobbies, I love board games and video games. I own quite a lot of board games, and we hold board game nights spontaneously here at home.
HN: What are your favorite games?
LT: There’s one called “The Mind,” which is a card game. There’s another one called “The Game,” which is similar to “The Mind,” but it’s also very exciting. My favorite is called “Azul,” I think it’s Portuguese.
HN: What video games do you play?
LT: I got a Nintendo Switch last year, so I started playing a lot of Switch games. I play Legends of Zelda, Super Mario Odyssey, and Pokemon: Let’s Go. It’s very nostalgic, because when I was a kid I played on the GameBoy.
HN: What would most students be surprised to learn about you?
LT: I speak five languages; that’s something most students don’t know. When I was a student in Brazil, I was in a school that had Italian classes, so I started picking up Italian. Then I did both French and Italian in high school. I did some Spanish at MIT – I almost did a minor in Spanish. So I speak Portuguese, English, Italian, French, and Spanish.
HN: What is your advice for Minervans who are about to choose their majors and concentrations?
LT: As an undergrad I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was good at math, but that could go in many different directions. So when I started my undergrad, I thought I was going to be a Computer-Math major. I took a few math courses, then switched to an Applied Math major. Then I started Physics and ended up double majoring because there was a lot of overlap. But then I was like, “What am I gonna do in terms of jobs?” So I got a minor in Business. I was all over the place. I didn’t know what to do.
If you have an idea of what to do, I strongly advise focusing your energy and your efforts on specific things. A minor might not go as deep into the subject. If I go back and look at my minor, I don’t really remember these specific business concepts that I haven’t used, whereas all of the math and pretty much all of the physics that I’ve studied have been used at some point. Sometimes I wish that I took a few more math and physics classes. I had the chance to redo that during my Ph.D. and get more depth, but most undergrads don’t get that opportunity.
My general advice is: dive into things that you’re really interested in. One major is generally enough; most people (including yourself!) won’t remember what your minor was, unfortunately. But also, do things that you like. I think that doing things that add to your well-being and curiosity is more important than the label itself. Do one major really well and take classes that you enjoy without having to worry that, “Oh no, I need one more class that has nothing to do with my areas of interest just to get a minor.” I don’t know how much value that adds.
Dive into things that you’re really interested in. One major is generally enough; most people (including yourself!) won’t remember what your minor was, unfortunately.
HN: What is your advice for people who are still figuring things out and don’t know what they like yet?
LT: Good question. It took me forever to figure anything out. During my entire Ph.D. I was thinking, “Am I doing the right thing?” until I got to teach. I strongly encourage trying things out, especially if you have a chance to work with a civic partner or do a summer internship. In my first summer I worked in a chemistry lab, which had absolutely nothing to do with what I knew how to do or what I wanted to do. But that’s what happened, and it was a positive experience. I learned a lot about professionalism during that lab. Even though I haven’t used any of the chemistry, I still learned something out of it. I learned that I didn’t want to be in chemistry. You should try various experiences and always look at the positive side of them. Even if it’s not what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, they add value.
HN: A lot of Minervans are considering doing a Master’s or Ph.D. Do you have any advice for us to prepare for it?
LT: I know the challenges that come with doing research while on rotation. Most Ph.D. programs will want to see some kind of research experience during your four years. If during the summer you focus on finding a research opportunity, that would have a big effect. Establishing contact with professors in the areas you’re interested in [is also helpful]. Ph.D.s need to be focused on a very narrow area. Read papers on that area and see whether that’s exactly what you want to do for your Ph.D. Then reach out to the people who wrote that paper and ask about opportunities with questions like, “What can I do to be a valuable asset to your group?” I’m sure a lot of faculty around the world would love to have Ph.D. candidates from an amazing pool of students like Minerva because institutions look for motivated people working on problems they care about. It’s good to establish contact with specific people that you could see yourself working with. Just get an idea of what skills are needed and how to improve to get there. That will strongly increase your chance of getting into a Ph.D. program.
HN: Thank you Professor! Sometimes, it’s very difficult for students to maintain a work-life balance. How do you maintain your balance, especially during the times you need to focus 100 percent of your energy on urgent priorities?
LT: My sleep was one of the things I prioritized the most over my nine years of higher education. Amazingly, I would get at least 8 hours of sleep everyday no matter what. I always focus on being healthy, having a reasonable sleep schedule and a good diet. Another thing that for me particularly wasn’t a big priority during my academia years (this might sound a bit cliché) was going to parties and having a big social life. I like to spend time by myself, and I think it’s important to find a setting that’s supportive. In my case, that’s sometimes just enjoying my own company, like treating myself to a movie or a restaurant meal. These are the experiences that help me ground myself. As an undergrad or a Ph.D. student, I would save a moment in a week to go have a nice meal, and it would make me feel a lot better. Find the time to be nice to yourself. It’s not about having a reward system; it’s just taking care of yourself. Do something nice for you, without any strings attached.
I know that a lot of people would like to have a group of friends, partners, or family to support them. There are a lot of support structures that exist, and I think it’s very important to invest in them. I know sometimes it might be a cause for a lower grade on an assignment, but if you need that support, if you need that extension, if you need that to take care of yourself, then yes, do that, take care of yourself and find people that help you take care of yourself.