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Doctoral student Dalila Dragnić-Cindrić: A profile of pursuing purpose

She came to America with nothing. Not even one childhood photo.

Dalila Dragnić-Cindrić’s journey has been an odyssey, one that started in war-torn Bosnia.

Along the way: A bachelor’s degree in physics from N.C. Central University. Work with patients in a cancer research clinic. An encounter that led to a master’s degree from Duke. A 14-year tech career, rising up the ranks at IBM and Lenovo. Meetings where she was the only woman in the room, managing engineers in supply chain and software development projects.

And, an abrupt turn in her son’s first grade classroom – a junction that took her to a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship and into a doctoral program at Carolina’s School of Education.

But first there was the tunnel.

The five-foot-high tunnel running for half a mile under the airport runway in Sarajevo was the only way out for people hoping to escape the brutal shelling and the snipers laying siege to the city during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

For Dragnić-Cindrić, halfway through the typically two-hour trip came word that wounded soldiers were coming through, being taken into the city for the hospital. She was advised to turn back. Instead, she squeezed to the side, as the wounded were carried past her.

What she can’t escape: the memories of her beloved Sarajevo, ripped by war.

“I don’t think I can get rid of it, no matter what I do,” she said.

‘This is what I should be doing’

Today, Dragnić-Cindrić is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, joining a fraternity that includes Nobel Prize winners, members of the National Academies of Science and the founder of Google.

It was while she volunteered in her older son’s classroom that Dragnić-Cindrić began to question her career path. In the first-grade classroom she did math enrichment work with students.

“I had the feeling that those children were so bright,” Dragnić-Cindrić said. “Their capacity was so much bigger than what they were being offered.”

The following summer Dragnić-Cindrić enrolled in a NASA-sponsored certificate program that helps teachers teach STEM – or science, technology, engineering and math – topics. To her son’s second-grade teacher she proposed leading a STEM club. The teacher gave her a list of six boys for the club. Dragnić-Cindrić gave it back, asking for a list that included girls. The next list had three Latina girls.

“I was so happy. I knew girls could handle this content because I have handled it in my life,” Dragnić-Cindrić said.

She also began to realize something.

“I was a very good senior project manager at Lenovo,” Dragnić-Cindrić said. “But I felt like I was living a completely different life when I was in the classroom. I felt like ‘This is where I should be. This is what I should be doing.’”

She recalled one of the NASA faculty members describing her experience in a Ph.D. program, and the mentoring she got there. Dragnić-Cindrić searched for doctoral programs where she could gain theoretical grounding in how children learn. She applied to and was accepted into the Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies strand of the Ph.D. program at the School of Education … and had a choice to make.

“I said ‘Where am I making a bigger contribution to society? Is my contribution going to be bigger if I handle yet another project for this corporation, or if I go and touch eight more lives in a science classroom?’ To me that’s what made the decision ultimately easy. My decision was, this is where I personally can make the biggest impact for this society and make it better.”

She quit her job, leaving behind what she called its “beautiful” paycheck.

The challenge of uncertainty

Two and a half years into the doctoral program, she’s working on her dissertation research proposal.

She intends to explore how groups of people working in scientific inquiry deal with uncertainty.

“People approach uncertainty in different ways,” Dragnić-Cindrić said. “Some people when they face uncertainty orient towards it. Some people actually don’t like it and they orient towards certainty. And since uncertainty is an inherent part of science, I want to see what happens when we have people participate in tasks that have different levels of uncertainty and see how that drives the group dynamics and the regulation of learning.”

Her adviser, Jeff Greene, a researcher who studies issues around cognition and self-regulated learning, called Dragnić-Cindrić’s research agenda “truly innovative.”

“One real challenge is the uncertainty in science, such as the tentative nature of science knowledge, uncertainty in measurement, etcetera, and this challenge can really make collaboration hard,” Greene said. “Dalila is studying how to help groups better manage this uncertainty, and all of the powerful emotions that follow, so they can focus on learning and growing in science.”

Dragnić-Cindrić said the study will be the first of its kind and is needed today.

“I think it’s exceptionally important because the world is getting more uncertain every day, it seems,” she said. “And it seems the speed of innovation and change is picking up and I think that it’s possible to get people to do better with respect to uncertainty and how they feel about it and how they navigate through it.”

In addition to helping educators better teach science, eventually her work could make contributions to the development of artificial intelligence, which is currently good at making predictions, but less than good in making judgments, Dragnić-Cindrić said.

‘A life of purpose’

dalila dragnic cindric
Dragnić-Cindrić remains close to Bosnia and her home in its capital, Sarajevo. She takes her two sons there every summer, where they practice speaking Bosnian and enjoy the culture.

Dragnić-Cindrić credits her experience as a refugee for being able to achieve so much in America.

Natives of the U.S., she said, often overlook the opportunities here.

“I think that gives immigrants, and especially first-generation immigrants, a unique advantage,” she said. “We often come from backgrounds or countries where all the doors are closed, or in my case, a war-ravaged country. Then everywhere you look here there is so much opportunity.”

But she also is driven. She thinks about being someone who survived a war, and that the survivors should contribute to make the world better.

“I have one thing that I always think to myself: I want to lead a life of purpose, on purpose. That’s my mantra, and I repeat it to myself whenever the going gets tough: It’s the life of purpose, on purpose.”