Ognjen Miljanic, assistant professor of chemistry, strives for innovation in both his research and teaching endeavors. That trait led to his selection as a 2013 Cottrell Scholar. Miljanic is the first University of Houston (UH) faculty member to receive this recognition and the only scholar of this year’s 13 recipients from Texas.
The honor, awarded by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), goes to early-career science educators in the physical sciences and related fields. Recipients receive $75,000 to further their research and educational programs.
Selection is highly competitive. Only about 10 percent of those who apply are approved by the RCSA’s peer-review process. The Cottrell Scholar Program Award is one of several faculty awards recognized in the Top American Research Universities report as defining Tier One universities. The program strives to establish a network of scholar educators through their annual Cottrell Scholar Collaborative, a forum for sharing methods to improve undergraduate science education in American research universities and increase retention of undergraduate science majors.
“The yearly meetings focus on establishing educational collaborations that will help bring our initiatives to completion faster,” Miljanic said. “It is a great honor to be part of the Cottrell Scholar Collaborative.”
Proposals for the Cottrell Scholar Award cover research and education endeavors equally. Miljanic’s proposal to RCSA included several educational initiatives. All of his ideas are based on his desire to enhance his students’ educational experience, with a particular focus on the unique demographics of UH students. One activity involves “eLectures” designed to help the students enrolled in his large 5:30 p.m. organic chemistry class.
“Many of these students are commuters with full-time jobs, and their work sometimes requires them to miss a lecture or two,” he said. “The recorded lectures approximate the classroom experience. They can listen in their free time at home as many times as they need. I encourage students not to miss lectures, but if they do, there is a back up.”
Miljanic tapes the lectures ahead of class in a studio-like setting, dividing each eLecture into five to 10 concepts. This structure makes it easy for students to locate concepts they need to review. Each concept is cross-linked with related topics, both within the lecture and with external resources.
Another initiative involves building 3-D printed models to illustrate concepts in chemistry, such as potential energy surfaces and orbital interactions of aromaticity. He uses the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics 3-D printing facility to create the models.
“Some concepts are difficult to put on a blackboard,” Miljanic said. “The 3-D models make the class more interactive. Students can touch them and pass them around.”
On the research side of his proposal, Miljanic hopes to mimic nature by achieving “molecular self-sorting” in manmade mixtures of chemical compounds. Working on ways to better imitate nature’s ability to manufacture many of the molecules necessary for life, Miljanic aims to apply these insights in the preparation of new molecules for use in sensing, separations and energy-relevant applications.
“Nature simultaneously makes hundreds of really complex molecules. For example, an orange tree doesn’t shut down all other systems when it needs to make vitamin C. It makes it in parallel with glucose and many other things,” he said. “I am working to translate this concept into a laboratory setting in order to make multiple value-added chemicals in parallel with each other in the same reaction flask.”
His research is not designed to replicate nature but rather to make sophisticated synthetic molecules with applications in environmental analysis, energy-related research and basic chemical industry.
“Ognjen is truly dedicated to excellence in both his research and teaching,” said David Hoffman, chairman of the chemistry department. “It is great to see his creativity and hard work recognized at the national level. My colleagues and I are very proud to have him on our faculty.”
With an anticipated award start date of July 1 for the Cottrell award, Miljanic has been invited to attend the 2013 Cottrell Scholar conference – “Connecting Educators, Building Communities” – in Tucson, Ariz., July 10-12. The highly interactive conference gives scholars the opportunity to share their proposed educational activities with others, provides time for team building and the development of collaborative projects and offers a chance to engage with well-known speakers from a national perspective regarding possibilities for taking ideas to the next level.
Miljanic’s past awards include a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and UH Teaching Excellence Award for Innovation in Instructional Technology, both awarded in 2012.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation’s fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 39,500 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country. For more information about UH, visit the university’s newsroom.
About the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
The UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, with 187 ranked faculty and more than 5,000 students, offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the natural sciences, computational sciences and mathematics. Faculty members in the departments of biology and biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, earth and atmospheric sciences, mathematics and physics conduct internationally recognized research in collaboration with industry, Texas Medical Center institutions, NASA and others worldwide.
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