School of Molecular Sciences announces Tijana Rajh as new director

By

James Klemaszewski

Tijana Rajh has been announced as the new director of Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences.

She comes to ASU from a 25-year career at Argonne National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Energy research at Argonne, including artificial photosynthesis and semiconductors, has been a passion for Rajh, who is an Argonne Distinguished Fellow and former deputy division director.

Rajh grew up in the former country of Yugoslavia, and she attended the University of Belgrade. Her professors, who came from around the world, instilled in her an interdisciplinary and multifaceted approach to team building and problem-solving.

“In addition to teaching us facts and operability,” Rajh said, “our professors taught us how to think, extract important details of a problem, and come up with solutions. Importantly, they taught us that in order to truly understand a problem, you need to not only apply theoretical approaches, but also to compare them with results obtained experimentally. This approach prepared me for the future, to work on complex problems and to work in large teams.”

Rajh went on to work in solar energy research, as part of an international research team composed of scientists from the Solar Energy Research Institute (that later became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) in Golden, Colorado, and the Boris Kidric Institute in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (currently Serbia), working in complementary fields of photoelectrochemistry and semiconductor particle research.  

The U.S. Department of Energy Basic Energy Sciences program recognized this work and awarded one of the first DOE Nanoscale Science Engineering and Technology grants to the project.

Rajh assembled, led and managed a team of five scientists encompassing photochemistry, electrochemistry and computational approaches. The project eventually turned into a NanoBio Interface group at Argonne, one of the five DOE-funded Nanoscale Science Research Centers.

Here, Rajh reflects on how she developed her interest in energy science, the importance of diversity, her future vision for the school, and more.

Question: How did you begin to develop an interest in energy science?

Answer: I come from Yugoslavia, a country that was always somewhat “in between.” It was a country that came to existence through conflict between the major monarchies of Austro-Hungary and Turkey, with a culture influenced by three of the world’s major religions, and yet remained a society in between East and West. Because of this, I was exposed to cultural differences and opportunities arising from diverse viewpoints.

My family is deeply rooted in the humanities. My father was a philosopher and surrealist, my mother was a linguist, and my sister is a linguist and a writer. Although I shared my family’s interest in Aristotle, my interests were focused on his understanding of natural phenomena more so than philosophy. From a young age, I cared about what things are made from, how light makes its patterns, and how rays of light propagate through a room. When I started learning physics in junior high and my teacher brought in a Crookes radiometer (a light mill) and used it to explain the dual nature of light, I was hooked!

After high school I enrolled in the College of Physical Chemistry at University of Belgrade, a very small but intense program that at the time had a large number of young professors educated in the best schools from both the West and East. These young professors taught us with a lot of enthusiasm and tried to transfer to us the experiences and knowledge they had gained during their international training.

Question: Using solar energy to create fuel efficiently and at a large scale is a challenging problem with a long history. What have you learned along the way?

Answer: Prompted by the oil crisis and inspired by photosynthesis, we wanted to create a very simple approach in which semiconductor particles, immersed in water, would produce hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to light. This concept was extended to reducing carbon dioxide in the presence of light to produce methane or methanol as a product, much like plants use carbon dioxide and light to produce food. We thought that it would be simple to convert carbon dioxide to an energy-rich fuel compound. However, this turned to be very hard to do.

Although this research did not at that time became usable technology, in the process we learned a lot about the photochemistry of semiconductor particles, their surface chemistry and reactions with adsorbed compounds that helped initiate new research directions. The interaction between complementary fields and our teamwork approach were very important for learning important rules of team building, pathways of innovation and discovery. This work resulted in one of the earliest studies of quantum dots, a scientific area that has grown enormously and is of great interest and impact today.

Question: Based on your experience, how are innovation and problem-solving impacted by diversity?

Answer: Throughout this journey I learned how diversity and inclusion can unlock innovation by creating an environment where “outside the box” ideas produce new fresh perspectives. Diversity matters because people matter. People come in different ages, races, color, religions, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, just to name a few. They all bring different qualities and points of view that, if utilized, can make a working place stronger and prepared for the challenges that we are facing. The more an organization mirrors our rapidly evolving environment, the more likely it is to bring critical thinking that delivers long-term value.

Because of my background — growing up in Yugoslavia and working with international teams — I view excellence in teaching, mentoring and research as essential components of a successful academic career. Few things are more rewarding for a mentor than leaving a legacy for future generations of young professionals from around the world. During my scientific career, I have been lucky to have the opportunity to motivate, mentor and coach generations of scientists to carry forward an inclusive approach to research in their careers at multiple institutions around the world.

Question: This brings us to your new position at ASU. You were at a renowned research facility for 25 years. What drew you to the School of Molecular Sciences?

Answer: I am attracted to this position because I see great opportunities for innovation at SMS and ASU. Throughout my interactions with university and college leadership, students, staff and faculty, I saw eagerness for new research, innovation and collaborative programs between different schools and institutes. This was inspiring! I was so moved by this energy and enthusiasm that I decided to leave the place where I was happily working for 25 years. The concept of the New American University as an interactive student-centric model that supports innovation, agility, change and collaboration is something I can very much identify with. I believe that future of research relies on places where leaders and engaging stakeholders share the same passion, commitment, and ownership of solutions for societal challenges.

Question: What is your vision for the school in the coming years?

Answer: I would like to see SMS continue to grow as an international innovation leader, a school that creates future careers. I would like SMS to be better known as a school for its creative ideas and impactful research capable of finding effective solutions for societal challenges. During the pandemic SMS was instrumental in developing a rapid test for COVID-19. SMS research productivity reached new heights in 2020, with research publications jumping nearly 50% to 281 peer-reviewed journal articles in 2020. Additionally, 260 new research proposals totaling $90 million were submitted in 2020, and 124 proposals totaling over $36 million were awarded. This is not easy to achieve in a rapidly changing world and even faster changing technology.

Question: How do you envision continued growth at SMS?

Answer: Many solutions of tomorrow’s science will be the result of the convergence of disciplines. This requires teamwork and the development of exponential thinking that boost capacity for collaboration and innovation, and ultimately lead to more effective solutions to social and environmental challenges. I believe that building on the existing excellence of SMS and its outstanding faculty and staff is a pathway to excel. I look forward to working with Ian Gould, who has accomplished much as interim director, to extend research opportunities and bring new educational modalities by introducing new programs, for example, quantum biology, and new materials, for innovative solutions that address important challenges.

Question: How will the school contribute to accomplishing ASU’s charter and goals?

Answer: New education and science will happen only with the convergence of science, business and arts as they focus on global societal challenges. With science bringing new understandings of materials and processes, we need business collaborations to find the best applications for our new technologies, and art to help us communicate their potential. We can then apply these new solutions to fight climate change, deliver new solutions for water, food and health needs, and create efficient carbon-neutral technologies. The New American University concept makes ASU the perfect place to establish new societally impactful programs and a home for future careers.

Question: What are your top priorities as the new director?

Answer: The most important thing for me is to create a dynamic scientific environment in which researchers, as well as staff running the operations, feel empowered to envision and create the future. In order to sustain its leading position, SMS needs to bring new research opportunities, explore new educational modalities and leverage today’s “boom” in technologies to strengthen its national and global impact.

Question: What do you see as your strengths for the school and its people?

Answer: I thrive on creating new programs based on the convergence of different disciplines. My experiences from the beginning of my research career to my recent management roles taught me that cross-pollination of ideas and teamwork are the most necessary ingredients for success. Today’s science is generally not suited for isolated researchers, but rather that teamwork is the ideal — if not only — way to approach complex problems. Something I excel in is helping students, staff and faculty from different disciplines to come together and identify and create solutions that build from their expertise. Together, I look forward to an exciting and productive future for us all!