UH Chemist, Ognjen Miljanic, Selected as a Cottrell Scholar

UH Chemist, Ognjen Miljanic, Selected as a Cottrell Scholar
Award Recognizes Scientific Research and Dedication to Teaching

MiljanicOgnjen 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.

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.

Miljanic is the first University of Houston faculty member to receive this recognition, and of the 13 recipients this year, he is the only scholar from a university in Texas.

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 Scholars Collaborative, a forum for sharing methods to 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 Scholars Collaborative.”

Innovation in Education

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 3D-printed models to illustrate concepts in chemistry, such as potential energy surfaces and orbital interactions of aromaticity.

“Some concepts are difficult to put on a blackboard. The 3D models make the class more interactive; students can touch them and pass them around,” said Miljanic, who uses the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics 3D printing facility to create the models.

Mimicking Mother Nature

On the research side of his proposal, Miljanic hopes to mimic nature by achieving “molecular self-sorting” in manmade mixtures of chemical compounds.

“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. My colleagues and I are very proud to have him on our faculty,” said David Hoffman, chairman of the Department of Chemistry. “It is great to see his creativity and hard work recognized at the national 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.

- Kathy Major, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics