Stellar Penticton student wins $10,000 prize

Pen High grad Yasha Pushak, now a double-honours computer science and math student at UBC Okanagan won a $10,000 prize.

Yasha Pushak

Yasha Pushak

Few students get to publish a research paper while they are doing their bachelor’s degree, but it’s even rarer for a student to be tagged as lead author by their professor.

That, however, is exactly the situation Pen High grad Yasha Pushak, now a double-honours computer science and math student at UBC Okanagan, found himself in.

“Yasha’s contribution was so high, that Dr. (Yves) Lucet and I decided to list him as first author,” said Dr. Warren Hare, Pushak’s mathematics prof. “Mathematics research has a ‘when in doubt, go alphabetical rule,’ and breaking this for an undergraduate student is exceptional.”

Pushak spent two summers working as an undergraduate research assistant, and co-authored four publications during his four years at UBC. His first paper, which he worked on with Hare and computer science professor Lucet, was submitted to the European Journal of Operations Research, one of the top journals in its field.

It is only the latest accolade for Pushak, who graduated last week at UBC’s 2015 spring convocation. He has garnered more than 10 scholarships and awards, including the $10,000 Pushor Mitchell Gold Medal Leadership Prize, as a student in the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences.

“When it came to my undergraduate degree, I was fully mentally preparing myself to be just an average student. It ended up not being that way,” said Pushak. “I am still surprised when I win awards.”

Yasha’s father, Bob Pushak, noted that the gold medal isn’t just recognizing Yasha’s academic achievements, but also his community service, noting that he also won a community service award when he graduated from Pen High.

“He was just doing an incredible amount of stuff at the time. I’ve worried about him at times, that he is not going to be able to keep up his grades and do all this community involvement.

“He got himself a treadmill desk so he could be working while he was getting exercise at the same time.”

In this case, the community service was organizing a major conference for undergrads at UBC Okanagan the first Canadian Undergraduate Computer Science Conference. Yasha attended a similar conference for mathematics last summer, and enjoyed it so much that when he learned no such event existed in computer science, he decided to organize one.

The social aspect of the conference was a big motivator for Yasha, who said that appeals to him as much as research.

“Part of the reason I liked the conference was that I got to meet really amazing students from across Canada and interact with them. Having people who are passionate about the same stuff as I was really cool,” said Yasha.

A good night’s sleep, said Yasha, is how he manages to do so much.

“I make sure that I try to get sleep every night, so that I am awake during the day so that I can do it all,” he said. “That’s my secret.”

Next year, Yasha will be working on a master’s degree at UBC Vancouver in computer science, but beyond that, he isn’t sure what the future holds.

“What I want to do in the end, I am not sure. I know that I like working with people primarily,” he said.

Research is fun, but Yasha said he also enjoyed interacting with other students while working as an undergraduate teaching assistant.

“If I do become a professor, I would like that, because it combines both the research and the teaching and interacting with other people,” he said.

Bob isn’t sure what the future holds for his son either.

“Who can tell for sure if he is going to make a significant contribution, but maybe he will,” said Bob. “I’ve told both of my boys that hopefully they could do something more significant with their lives than just making money.”