Dalma Martinović-Weigelt: Water Protector

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I had a nice childhood in Slavonski Brod. I grew up in a middle class family that took summer vacations on the Croatian coast. 

I was in college in the early 1990s when the breakup of Yugoslavia led to war. I was lucky to be in Zagreb, which was not as impacted. My family, however, was on the border with Bosnia. There was a lot of uncertainty and not good times. But I think when you are that young, you feel invincible. Somehow, I cruised through those years more easily than I think I would have if I was older. 

The year I graduated, 1995, was about the time the war ended. In terms of opportunities, there was next to nothing. My family’s savings, reserves, and middle class life prior to war had basically disappeared. I decided to go to the United States because I was familiar with the culture. I had been an exchange student in the U.S. in 1988–89. 

My family likes humanities, and for a time my dream was to be a comparative literature scholar. My love of nature and biology made me want to be a scientist. When I was in the U.S. as an exchange student, I took chemistry, biology, and physics courses with high school teachers who left an impression on me. It is a whole different story to get engaged in the discovery process than to memorize facts. 

My long-term plan was to win a scholarship, move to the U.S., and go to graduate school. There were all these last-minute expenses, which left me traveling to the U.S. with a very limited amount of cash. When I finally arrived, I was separated from my suitcase. In the 1990s, the chances of getting your suitcase back were small. I had packed only one suitcase — full of things you do not necessarily need but must have, like mementos and photographs. 

Maybe the thing I gave up the most by never returning to my childhood home is a sense of clear identity. It is strange to go back to Croatia and be viewed as the “other,” when you are also the “other” here. You are in this in-between space — bizarre but liberating. 

One of the challenges, if you are an immigrant, is that you have to have the visa for your next job lined up very quickly before your prior job has ended. You don’t have many choices compared to someone who has U.S. citizenship. 

Through a series of windy paths and experiences, I attended the University of Minnesota. After my Ph.D. I worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on a project with the Environmental Protection Agency. However, because I am not a citizen, I could not get a job there after my post-doctorate. The University of St. Thomas offered me a position, despite a six-month delay in my ability to get all the paperwork in place to start there. Not all organizations are like that. 

My main contribution has been discovering methodologies to help protect the environment. I am very interested in water protection. A legislative commission of the citizens of Minnesota selects projects that target issues that are important to Minnesotans and natural resources. One of these projects relates to unregulated contaminants, and the other relates to how old oil spills are aging. We have funds to conduct research that will promote healthy drinking and surface water. 

In STEM it can be difficult to be self-confident because you are always looking up to people who know so much. It is important to build relationships because, ultimately, we function as a collective. 

I find Minnesota to be a great place to collaborate. 

Dalma Martinovic-Weigelt is an environmental scientist. 

For more about the Green Card Voices STEM stories, see: greencardvoices.com/stem-mn

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