Interview with Ana Deletic

The award-winning professor discusses Yugoslavia’s war, women and engineering, and how nationalism hurts research

May 25, 2017
Ana Deletic
Source: Peter Glenane

Ana Deletic is associate dean of research in the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University, Australia. Originally from Serbia, Professor Deletic took her PhD at the University of Aberdeen before moving to Monash in 2003. A renowned engineering academic, she is the only woman to have received Australia’s prestigious Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation (Physical Sciences) in the award’s 18-year history. In July, she will take up her position as pro vice-chancellor (research) at the University of New South Wales.

Where and when were you born?

Belgrade, Yugoslavia (at the time), 1965.

How has this shaped you?

As I come from the Balkans, I think I can understand how it is necessary to balance different interests. And when it comes to solving complex problems, I think I’ve got some understanding of how difficult things can be. My family has a bit of interesting background. My great-uncle is one of the guys who started the First World War – one of the gang behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The political situation of Yugoslavia was complex and complicated, and if you understand that, a lot of other things seem rather simple.

What do you hope to achieve in your new position?

I want the University of New South Wales to become one of the best in Australia and placed within the top 50 in the world. It’s a very good university as it is, but not number one, so we’re hoping to lift it up – at least to be in the top three.

You are the only woman to have won the Victoria Prize, and at a time when you were the only female professor in civil engineering in Australia’s Group of Eight research-intensive universities. Does that make you a trailblazer for female scientists in the country?

I’m not the only female professor [in civil engineering] any more; it’s good news that there are a few now. However, it is a shame that I’m still the only female winner of the Victoria Prize. I come from a different part of the world, where being a woman in engineering is not as rare – my mother-in-law was one. In general, I have never had a problem with being female among males. Both Monash and UNSW have a very good strategy in trying to include women in STEM, particularly engineering. We’re trying our best.

How much of a problem is gender inequality in higher education?

I think Australia is slightly behind places such as the UK on this issue, and definitely behind the US. I think it’s a bit harder here; it’s a broader cultural issue. In the past five years, there have been lots of initiatives and awareness in this area; but when I arrived here, it was much worse. So I’ve seen big progress. In engineering – which is the worst [field for gender inequality] – it’s to do with the culture, which goes beyond universities. If you have a culture in which engineering is seen as a solely male discipline, it’s very hard to fix the problem at this stage. It needs to be addressed at the level of primary and early secondary education – engineering should be promoted among girls in schools.

Do you think that Brexit will spur UK-based academics to consider following your lead and relocating?

We’re already seeing signs of that. It’s not good for academia to have any sort of restrictions on movement. In academia, it doesn’t matter where you were born, it’s the most multicultural, multinational workforce – wherever you go. I’m sure that the UK’s best academics will be welcome anywhere they want to go.

What impact might Brexit have on the UK’s academic base?

I think it’s going to be bad for the UK. As soon as nationalism rises to prominence, it hurts research and development. I left my country because of that. Yugoslavia had the pinnacle of that craziness; we had a war, which hopefully you won’t get. But when that stuff starts to rule a country, academia as well as R&D suffers big time. History [shows] that as soon as you start closing borders and playing this nationalistic tune, advancement of technology, science and the arts suffers. It’s been like this always: the most closed country is the worst for innovation and development.

What are the best and the worst things about being an academic?

The best: the freedom to do what you want. You officially have a boss; but at the end of the day, no one can really tell you what to do. You have to deliver lectures; but that’s a small part of what you do. When it comes to research, you create your own research agenda. Someone’s paying you to play – you go and play in your lab, and you get paid for that. It’s the most fun job on earth.

The worst: researchers being used for the glory of people who are very good at manipulating and self-promotion.

What event divided your life into “before” and “after”?

War in Yugoslavia during the 1990s. War and nationalism – and close-minded people who were judging other people purely on background – made me and my husband leave.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Somebody who supported young people to go where they wanted to go. Not just students, but younger colleagues, too. That would be great.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Lisa M. Coleman has been appointed inaugural chief diversity officer at New York University and senior vice-president for global inclusion, diversity and strategic innovation. Dr Coleman will take up her position in September. An alumna of NYU, she is currently chief diversity officer and special assistant to the president at Harvard University. Dr Coleman previously held roles at Tufts University, the City University of New York System, Merrill Lynch and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Andrew Hamilton, president of NYU, said that in addition to her strong record and background at NYU, “what distinguished Dr Coleman was her character: her forthright nature, her wisdom, her ability to connect with students, faculty, administrators and staff; her energy; and her evident desire and ability to bring people together”.

Sir John Savill has been named Regius professor of medical science at the University of Edinburgh. Sir John, who is currently head of the university’s College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine and chief executive of the Medical Research Council, will take up his position on 1 April 2018. The Regius post is in recognition of his outstanding contribution to medical research. Sir John started his research career with a degree in physiological sciences from the University of Oxford, followed by degrees in medicine at the University of Sheffield. He received his doctorate from the University of London. He was a professor of medicine at the University of Nottingham before joining Edinburgh, where he holds a personal chair in experimental medicine.

Leanna Barlow has been appointed dean of Silliman College, one of the residential colleges of Yale University. Dr Barlow, a political scientist, has several years of experience advising and mentoring students. Manus Carey has been named director of performance at the Royal Northern College of Music, and he will take up the position in September. The British Institute of International and Comparative Law has appointed Murray Hunt the new director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.

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