Issue Date: October 31, 2011
With memories of war still vivid, Meliha Zejnilagić-Hajrić is moving her country forward by training future chemistry educators. Zejnilagić-Hajrić is an associate professor of chemistry education at the University of Sarajevo, in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina—or just Bosnia to most Americans. When Zejnilagić-Hajrić was born, in 1952, Bosnia was one of six republics of what was then the socialist country of Yugoslavia.
Zejnilagić-Hajrić had a strong dose of chemistry growing up. Her mother was a middle school chemistry teacher, and her father was also a chemist. He would perform chemistry demonstrations for her in his lab; experiments involving changing colors particularly impressed her. When her father traveled to Brussels, he sent her a postcard with a photo of the Atomium, a famous sculptural landmark depicting a unit cell of an iron crystal.
After high school, Zejnilagić-Hajrić attended the University of Sarajevo and earned undergraduate degrees in both chemical engineering and chemistry education. Her teaching career began early when she took a position as a teaching assistant while she worked on a master’s degree. She continued to refine her chemistry teaching skills as a lecturer at the Pedagogical Academy, a teacher training college in Sarajevo.
Zejnilagić-Hajrić was the first person in Bosnia to work on a Ph.D. thesis related to chemistry education methods. She began work on her Ph.D. in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sarajevo and completed the degree at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia. The University of Sarajevo again beckoned, and the freshly minted doctoral educator returned to take a position as an assistant professor of chemistry education.
“Nowadays, I am an associate professor, and I have the great pleasure to work with some enthusiastic students who like to learn about teaching chemistry,” Zejnilagić-Hajrić says.
With 55,000 students and 1,640 professors and assistants, the University of Sarajevo is the largest educational institution in Bosnia and the center of the country’s scientific activity. The Faculty of Science was founded in 1950, but the university itself is centuries old. It began as a school of Islamic philosophy in 1531 when Sarajevo was part of the Ottoman Empire. It soon added the study of Islamic sciences as well as theology and law. The modern, secular incarnation of the school began only after World War II.
More recently, the university’s history played an important part in Zejnilagić-Hajrić’s personal history. In 1992, when Bosnia split off from the other republics of Yugoslavia, Serbian forces laid siege to Sarajevo. The Serbs wanted to claim part of the country for their own independent Serbian state.
Serb forces took positions in the mountains that surrounded the city. They were armed with artillery, mortars, antiaircraft guns, and other heavy weaponry. In addition, snipers inside the city made it dangerous for residents to leave their homes.
“I was here, unfortunately, and with a child only six months old,” Zejnilagić-Hajrić recalls. “It was very horrible; I couldn’t go out.” Her family was forced to live without electricity, gas, heat, and even water.
Eventually, even getting food became difficult. Zejnilagić-Hajrić’s husband had a high school friend who worked for Caritas, an international humanitarian organization. He helped the family get food for the baby.
But some parts of everyday life continued during the siege. “One important thing for me was to go to the university because the students would come. They wanted to come and learn, and so you have to come also.” While Zejnilagić-Hajrić was at the university, her mother cared for the baby but warned, “Be careful—it is very important that your son have a mother.”
The siege lasted a long time—1,479 days, according to the university’s history records. After the siege ended in 1996, there was much rebuilding to do both in the city and at the university. Today, most of the city and the school have been repaired, and Zejnilagić-Hajrić has plenty of students to teach, including ones from other countries. After they earn a degree in chemical education, her students can teach chemistry in elite middle and high schools, called gymnasiums.
Zejnilagić-Hajrić’s favorite part of chemistry is still demonstration experiments, and her students feel the same way. One student, Fatima, says her favorite demonstration is “fire without a match.” It shows the oxidative properties of potassium permanganate using glycerol and water. She adds, “I chose chemistry because I like experiments that prove laws that were discovered by great scientists like Avogadro. That kind of love of chemistry and that point of view on chemistry I want to share with my future students.”
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