“Teaching is a civil service for the community”

Dragan Damjanovic © Alain Herzog 2022 EPFL

Dragan Damjanovic © Alain Herzog 2022 EPFL

Dragan Damjanovic was named best teacher in the materials science section in 2021. And now, after serving for over 30 years as an EPFL professor, he’s retiring. We spoke with him about the one thing that’s meant the most to him throughout his career: teaching. 

The walls in Damjanovic’s office are covered with posters of crystals in a rainbow of colors. His favorite is a poster of proustite crystals on calcite. “I like the bi-color aspect, the duality, of this structure,” he says. In addition to teaching, Damjanovic heads a research group on ferroelectrics and functional oxides within EPFL’s School of Engineering. However, he believes that winning his section’s best teacher award was the best honor he could’ve gotten before heading off into retirement.

Every material has a story to tell

Damjanovic joined EPFL in 1991 and has always felt his role as a teacher takes priority over his research. “Teaching is very important to me,” he says. “I see it as a civil service for the community.” Whenever he presents a new material to his students, he also describes the societal and geopolitical context surrounding it. This helps make the subject of materials science more interesting and expand the students’ general knowledge. “Every material has a story to tell,” he says. “Especially for materials used in electronics, I think it’s important to explain where they come from and all the factors associated with their use. For instance, the lithium used in car batteries may come from mines in Bolivia. These mines have a direct impact on the country’s public policies. Students need to know these kinds of things for when they employ materials in their work later on.”

Completely rethinking his way of teaching

When the pandemic caused classes to be shifted online, Damjanovic – who had always been an old-fashioned kind of teacher with a penchant for the chalkboard – had to come up with a completely new way of giving his lessons. “It was a really tough time, especially for my students,” he says. “I committed to working even harder to help them get through it as best they could.” That meant spending weekends recording lectures and using the class time to answer questions. “I was happy to see they noticed the effort I’d made. And I was especially moved by the feedback I got in evaluations for my online doctoral course. Most PhD students attending the course took the time to write a comment and what our interaction meant to them.”

Setbacks are part of the process, too

Damjanovic believes that students coming into EPFL aren’t sufficiently prepared for what academic life is really like. “Their high-school teachers dazzle them with stories about the amazing discoveries made in professors’ labs, but the reality of research is actually quite different,” he says. “It’s hard, often tedious work.” In fact, it’s so hard that setbacks are a regular part of the process. Damjanovic feels that he experienced his own fair share of them in getting to where he is today. He can also spend several days stuck on how to write a given paragraph. “I’ve always felt deep down that science is my calling, and that’s what’s saved me!” he says. “I truly love what I do.” More than just a calling, science has been an excellent way for Damjanovic to express himself in a world where he often feels misunderstood.

Reading to become a better writer

When he’s not doing research, Damjanovic can often be found with his nose buried in a book. “I read just about anything I can get my hands on,” he says. “I think reading is key to being able to write up research results or a thesis well. It helps you state your thoughts more clearly and better understand and explain the world around you.” Right now he’s reading novels by female Croatian authors, who he finds “open him up to real people and the perspective of women.” He would also recommend the autobiography by physicist Richard Feynman, as it’s a good example of how to explain complicated concepts and scientific process in an interesting way.

Although he’ll soon be taking down the posters from his walls, Damjanovic doesn’t plan on withdrawing from research just yet. He will continue his work for a year in Slovenia and Germany before returning to Switzerland to enjoy his retirement.