Miljkovic pleased to join ‘powerhouse’ Illinois

10/01/2014

Assistant Professor Nenad Miljkovic sees his career as a natural progression. During his childhood, his father (a mechanical engineer) and his mother (an economist), fostered his interest in both physics and mathematics. Deciding to enter mechanical engineering for his undergraduate degree, he got to experience what it was like to work as an engineer in industry through an engineering co-op program. During one of his assignments, he got the chance to work on a research and development project. He was immediately hooked by the experience and quickly realized that most of the scientists and engineers on the R&D projects had advanced degrees.

“R&D was just fascinating,” Miljkovic said. “You have toys, you have sensors and actuators, you have hypotheses about what you’re observing, and then you get to use them all to see what happens. Most people working on R&D projects had their PhDs. Having realized this, it was a natural progression for me to go to graduate school.”

Miljkovic completed his graduate work at MIT. He began by working on a hybrid solar-thermal project for his master’s degree, but after helping a postdoc with some micro-nano phase-change heat transfer experiments, and seeing the fascinating and unsolved questions that remained unanswered in this field, he decided to switch to that topic for his PhD. He finished his master’s and PhD in a total of four years.

“It was pretty much a blur, things went really well,” Miljkovic said. “But at the same time it made me realize that a lot of the time, luck is also involved in research and you can’t always control your destiny. The minute you realize that, the easier your life will become. Sometimes experiments go according to plan, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you start your graduate studies in a field which is pretty nascent. In my case, the field that I got into was relatively new at the time when I started my PhD work in 2010. So that allowed me to publish more, learn more, and finish up very quickly.”

Miljkovic's research involves thermo-fluid sciences, interfacial phenomena, and renewable energy. He studies how to fundamentally manipulate heat-fluid-surface interactions across multiple length and time scales to bring about transformational efficiency enhancements in energy. His research has two main focuses: fundamental research on micro/nanostructured surfaces for phase change, interfacial phenomena, and electrokinetics; and applied research on devices and systems such as solar thermal energy conversion and atmospheric energy harvesting.

Illinois has a powerful appeal from its strong engineering reputation; even when Miljkovic was not sure he wanted to become a professor, the chance to become part of MechSE’s faculty was too good to ignore.

“I’ve always known Illinois was a powerhouse,” Miljkovic said. “But the engineering school is excellent, and a lot of great people are doing ground-breaking research here. Going through my PhD, I saw the very long hours my advisor was putting in to ensure her success in the tenure process, and I always said that I didn’t want to go to an R1 school. I wanted to go to a smaller school, or a lab, because it’s just a lot of pressure and work otherwise. But then this opportunity came up, and it was a no-brainer. It’s a fantastic school, and it was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. I would have been kicking myself for the rest of my life it I didn’t take it.”

This semester he is teaching ME420, Intermediate Heat Transfer. On his first day of class, he walked in five minutes before the bell. For MIT, he says, that’s fairly early, as students normally stroll in much closer to the last minute. However, when he walked into his first ME class, he was in for a surprise.

“Literally everybody was in the class, sitting quietly, not even talking to each other,” Miljkovic said. “I thought I had walked in on another class, but then I realized they were all waiting for me! So that kind of put me on the spot right away, but it’s been very enjoyable and rewarding. I’ve tried to open up the class and get to know them a bit more, get them to ask me questions, and just get them to see me as more of a human being as opposed to an intimidating professor. I’m enjoying it. And it’s a learning process; as you’re doing it you’re figuring things out yourself.”