Mentors help nurture a passion for science
Written by Tijana Rajh
Remember the feeling when you entered a laboratory for the first time? You didn’t know much beyond college books and everything you saw looked so interesting. Personally, I felt like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to do everything! So many questions raced through my mind. How do you choose what you want to work with? What is a good problem to work on? Do you even know what it is that you want from your science experience?
This is why mentors are so important. They help you focus your thoughts and balance your priorities. They help you learn how to navigate the world of science, tussle with scientist rivalries, maneuver through science administrations and steer through the complexities of life.
I was one of the lucky ones. I had outstanding mentors at each stage of my career. What was common to both of them was that they were pioneers in their fields and undeniably passionate about science. Their love for science has guided my career and life. Both were women who did not fit in the mainstream of science and were thinking outside the box, fascinated by a new and upcoming field in the 1980s: solar energy conversion.
Olga Micic, my Ph.D. adviser — also the first recipient of the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award here at Argonne — was my first mentor. She provided me with the right balance of structure and independence, encouragement and constructive criticism. She had a “sixth sense” and always guided me to the most burning questions both scientifically and personally. Together, when I was still a graduate student, and working with A.J. Nozik and his group from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, we conducted some of the earliest research on quantum dots, a scientific area that has grown enormously and is of current interest and importance. Years spent with Olga prepared me to move on independently in the scientific world armed with scientific tools and knowledge.
When I arrived at Argonne I started to work with Marion Thurnauer, one of the founders of Women in Science and Technology (WIST) and then director of the Chemistry Division. She is a recipient of several distinguished awards for science, for example, the Garvan-Olin Medal Award and several diversity awards, the Pinnacle Award, CCR 2010. Marion is one of the most thoughtful, educated and thorough persons that I have ever met. She taught me how to think independently and find the true meaning by understanding the problem down to its “bare bones.” Her broad scientific vision and deep understanding led to the most gratifying times in my life when I felt the full potential of the research. She taught me how to think critically and showed me how challenging science can be. Although we worked on all the projects together enjoying the fun of it, she pushed me to write my own grants, run my own projects and develop all the other practical skills needed for independence.
As true mentors, Olga and Marion remained my friends and advisors when I moved on to new endeavors. Unfortunately, Olga passed away prematurely and I was left with a huge hole in my life, but Marion continues to be my trusted counselor and a guide who offers moral and practical support. She is right by me whenever the problem I encounter needs a multifaceted view.
My career has progressed to the position where I can give back — I am leading a group of exceptionally talented women and men who, like both of my mentors, have in common an undeniable passion for science. I am trying to help junior researchers and postdocs prioritize many responsibilities and providing guidance on how to assess the important areas to focus on at different points of their careers. However, an individual mentor is unlikely to provide complete guidance so I am trying to identify additional mentors who can help them address the issues I do not have expertise in.
My daughter told me when she met my group last month, “You are so lucky! Everyone in your group is so driven and independent — you do not have much to do.” I thought to myself, “She is so right. Indeed, I am so lucky!”
About the Author
Tijana Rajh (CNM), group leader of the NanoBio Interfaces Research Group, grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. She received a B.A. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Belgrade. She received her M.S. in 1984 and her Ph.D. in 1986, both in Physical Chemistry from the University of Belgrade. Her doctoral research was performed at both the National Energy Renewable Laboratory under the supervision of Dr. Arthur J. Nozik and at the Vinca Institute under the supervision of Olaga Micic on "The Effect of Size Quantization in Semi-conductor Colloids on their Photochemical and Optical Properties." Dr. Rajh arrived at Argonne in 1994 and began working on surface modification of TiO2 nanoparticles, studying how light-induced chemistries of titania can be used for metal sequestration, deposition of metallic nanoparticles, and their integration with biomolecules. Recently the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) granted its third annual Innovator Award to Tijana for her work studying semiconductor nanoparticles, a field with applications from solar power to cancer research.