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Featured Scientist - Stanka Jovanovic

From the Summer 1996 sciencelines

Stanka Jovanovic, who retired May 31, 1996, has made significant contributions to science education and has a fascinating background as a chemist for Argonne National Laboratory. This interview is an opportunity to get to know Stanka better, and anyone who meets Stanka will never forget her!

Stanka, you were the Fermilab Education Office Manager for six years and the President of Friends of Fermilab for thirteen years. We all know you as one of the mothers of the Leon M. Lederman Science Education Center. But, I'd like to reflect on the early years of the education programs and on your educational and scientific background.

What do you recall as your beginning interest in science?

There are many differences between my early education and the education here in America. I grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. My family expected me to do well in school and go to college. In addition to my school work, I studied piano and foreign languages. We had no extracurricular activities in our schools.

Science and mathematics were an integral part of every student's education. We studied two to three sciences each year from fifth to twelfth grade. Mathematics was the most important subject. The best and most popular students were the ones who did well in mathematics. Our math teachers were very strict. They never smiled and expected perfection. Most students were afraid of math but not me. I took great pride in the fact that word problems came very easy to me.

Tell us something about your formal science education experiences in grade school and high school. Were there lectures? Did students work in teams? What kind of equipment was at your disposal? How did you feel about studying science and mathematics?

I attended an all-girls high school. There were no coed high schools then. The sciences were very descriptive. We used textbooks, and the teachers came to class and lectured. There was no such thing as hands-on science. We went to the science labs but for demonstrations only. Occasionally professors from the University of Belgrade came to do demonstrations or presentations. When I was a senior, Professor Jovanovic, Chairman of the Physics Department, was supposed to come; instead his son Drasko, a high school senior, showed up with wonderful physics demonstrations. That was the first time I met Drasko. We were married five years later.

Describe your undergraduate years. Where did you attend school. Were there many women in the programs, and did you encounter any stumbling blocks?

I attended the University of Belgrade. In those days, the College of Engineering and the Medical School were it. Medical and engineering graduates were the highest paid, so these were the most valued degrees. I wanted to be a Chemical Engineer. To be admitted I had to pass tough math entrance exams. In my group 2 out of 50 passed. There were no gender distinctions; men and women were judged the same. I enrolled in the Chemical Engineer Department, but within six months Tito, then President of Yugoslavia, decreed that the country needed metallurgical engineers. So one bright day, fifty of the best Chemical Engineering students were summarily transferred into the newly established Department of Metallurgy. Thus, I ended up with a Bachelors of Science in Metallurgical Engineering. Soon after, I came to the University of Chicago as a graduate student in the Chemistry Department. Drasko was already there in his third year of graduate studies in the Physics Department.

Tell us about some of the scientific positions you held.

I put myself through school as a research assistant at the University of Chicago Metal Institute. I had the privilege of working for many famous scientists from the Manhattan Project. I worked in the analytical chemistry lab and metalography lab. I loved it! I received my Master of Science degree and followed Drasko to the University of California in San Diego. At UCSD I worked as a graduate research chemist under Harold Urey, the Nobel Laureate who discovered deuterium.

Two years later Drasko accepted a position at Argonne National Laboratory, and we returned to Chicago. We decided to start a family. A year and a half after my daughter was born I went back to work parttime. I worked with George Reed, a chemist at Argonne National Laboratory. We studied the geochemistry of extraterrestrial materials, meteorites, Apollo and Luna moon samples and ancient terrestrial rocks. We were interested in the origin of matter, the origin of the solar system, the geothermal processes that shaped our world. I worked at Argonne for twenty-eight years. George and I authored more then 100 publications.

How did you become interested in education?

My interest stems from my involvement in my children's education. In 1978 the failure of the fourth school referendum eliminated all the extracurricular activities, including the instrumental music program in my daughter's elementary school. To preserve my daughter's band, I discovered in a hurry how the school system worked. I got a group of community leaders together, and we organized the "Junior Music Association," a not-for-profit corporation, to provide an instrumental music program in the district under a contract with the school board.

Share with readers of sciencelines the early years of FFLA and the Lederman Science Center.

In 1981 Leon Lederman, Director of Fermilab, asked me to organize a similar not-for-profit organization to sponsor precollege programs at Fermilab. I thought it would be great if Fermilab could offer programs for science teachers. I asked Marge Bardeen, who was then a school board president and a teacher, to join me, and with several other community leaders we organized Friends of Fermilab. From the very beginning and to this day, the sole purpose of FFLA is to provide support for the precollege programs at Fermilab.

What have been your greatest joys?

My family tops the list. My older daughter Jasna is an assistant professor in the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois. Vesna is a medical student at the University of California at Davis. They are Drasko's and my best friends. Drasko is one of the pioneers that built and made Fermilab work. His love for Fermilab is one of the reasons I responded to Leon's plea to get Friends of Fermilab going.

The most exciting part of my professional life was doing research with the moon samples. Last, but not least, my work here at Fermilab brought enormous satisfaction knowing that I played a role in creating the Education Office, the Lederman Science Center and the numerous science education programs that brought tens of thousands of students and thousands of teachers to Fermilab.

What are your plans for the future?

It was forty years ago this month that I came to the University of Chicago. I started running then and never stopped. So, the first thing I will do when I retire is to slow down and regroup. I have many plans to travel, visit my family and friends, enjoy our house in Idaho and sit on the beach in Florida. After that, who knows?

What advice would you give students?

Study, study, study. No one can do it for you. How much you study today will decide what you will become and how you will live your life.