Pursuing purpose

After a 14-year career in technology, Dalila Dragnić-Cindrić became interested in improving P-12 education while volunteering in her son’s first-grade classroom and seeing the importance of understanding how children learn.

Dalila Dragnic-Cindric

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

Dalila Dragnić-Cindrić’s journey has been an odyssey, one that started by fleeing in war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s — escaping snipers and artillery shelling through a five-foot-high tunnel under an airport runway.

Since then, she has earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from N.C. Central University and a master’s degree from Duke University. She worked with patients in a cancer research clinic and pursued a 14-year tech career at IBM and Lenovo where she managed engineers in supply chain and software development projects.

There was also an abrupt turn at her son’s first-grade classroom — a junction that led her to a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship and into a doctoral program at Carolina’s School of Education.

‘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 was volunteering in her oldest 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 topics. She then proposed leading a STEM club at her son’s elementary school. The second-grade 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 UNC School of Education.

“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,” she said. “This where I personally can make the biggest impact for this society and make it better.”

She quit her tech 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’

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 the United States.

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,” she said. “That’s my mantra, and I repeat it to myself whenever the going gets tough: It’s the life of purpose, on purpose.”