Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 3, 1997

Young Researchers
Get National Attention

Award: Cila Herman one
of four at Hopkins to
earn early career award

Phil Sneiderman
News and Information

The yellow envelope that arrived at Cila Herman's Hopkins office had a simple, yet dramatic return address: The White House, Washington. It was a thin envelope, the type that usually contains a short, polite rejection letter. The assistant professor of mechanical engineering expected the worst.

Instead, the letter told Herman that she had been recognized as one of the nation's most promising young researchers and would receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The award, which will be presented today at a ceremony in the White House, provides up to $100,000 a year in research funding for five years.

Cila Herman (right) an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with Martin Wetzel, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who is conducting heat transfer research in Herman's lab. Herman will receive a Presidential Early Career Award Nov. 3 at a White House ceremony.

Herman was one of just 60 researchers nationwide, including three others from Hopkins, selected to receive this award and participate in today's ceremony. The other Hopkins honorees are Patricia A. Van Zandt, an assistant professor of psychology; Sharon L. Walsh, an assistant professor of psychiatry; and Anirvan Ghosh, an assistant professor of neuroscience.

A statement from the White House described the award as "the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their careers."

For Herman, the award capped a long, sometimes frustrating struggle to hone her research skills and achieve professional recognition. Just 10 years ago, she was juggling electrical engineering graduate studies and a full-time research job in her native Yugoslavia. She was worried that her dream of continuing her studies elsewhere would never be realized.

"I wanted to do experimental work," she recalled. "In Yugoslavia, there was little money for that. And I wanted to learn something new."

But Herman could not afford to study outside Yugoslavia. And although her grades and test scores were stellar, her first applications for scholarships failed, she says, because her family lacked the proper "connections."

Finally, she received financial aid to cover one year of study at the Technical University of Munich in Germany--on the condition that she simultaneously complete all the research projects she had been assigned in Yugoslavia. "It was like having two full-time jobs," said Herman, whose first name is pronounced CHILL-a.

Ultimately, she distinguished herself in Germany in the field of heat transfer and earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Three days after defending her thesis in 1992, she had crossed the Atlantic and begun a new job as a faculty member at Hopkins.

Since then she has established a busy research lab, focusing on cutting-edge technology such as the use of sound waves to produce refrigerated air and the use of fluids to carry heat away from powerful electronic devices. She also uses lasers and a high-speed camera to study the swift movement of heat in minute detail.

In 1996, NASA funded Herman's research into the use of electric fields to move bubbles in outer space, where there is insufficient gravity to make them rise the way they do on Earth.

NASA officials were so impressed by Herman's work that they nominated her for the presidential award. Managing the heat produced by power generators, propulsion units and life-support systems in outer space is difficult, and NASA believes Herman can help overcome these hurdles.

"Her research in heat transfer is genuinely innovative," said Bradley Carpenter, lead scientist for NASA's microgravity research division. "She provides us with the potential for some long-term gains in technology that are going to be critical in future space exploration activities."

With this week's honor, Herman becomes the second faculty member in Hopkins' relatively small Mechanical Engineering Department to receive a presidential early career award. In 1994, Gregory Chirikjian, now an associate professor, was named a Presidential Faculty Fellow, a predecessor of the current award.

"We in the department are absolutely ecstatic that we now have two individuals who have received these very high honors," said Andrew S. Douglas, a mechanical engineering professor who chairs the department. "It indicates strength at Hopkins and strength in this department."

Douglas said the rare five-year research grant award will be invaluable. "It's a terrific thing for Cila's career," he said. "It will allow her to do some very exciting, high-risk stuff. She'll be able to try things that don't necessarily have a two-year payoff."

He also praised Herman as a dedicated teacher who has served as a mentor to many undergraduates and graduate students. In fact, when she learned she had won the prestigious presidential award, Herman's first call was not to her department chairman or her dean.

"I called my graduate students and told them that we had some really good news," Herman recalled. "They contributed to it. We went out to celebrate immediately. Then we went to tell Kate Stebe [an associate professor of chemical engineering] because she has supported me all of these years and helped me write my first research proposal."

In an interview, Stebe said she wasn't surprised that Herman first chose to share the good news with her students. "Cila works very closely with her team," Stebe said. "She saw it as a group victory, and she wanted to share it with them. She has a way of motivating her students so that they are really happy to be working with her."

David Chyung, who is working on his master's degree in mechanical engineering, agreed. "We're a very close-knit lab," he said. "She saw this as our success."

Despite Herman's great success in engineering, the field was not her first career choice.

"I wanted to be a physician," she said. "My mother is a physician. When I told my family what I wanted to do, my mother said that it was a very hard job with bad hours. She said I could be anything but a physician.

"Then my family got together and said, 'Well, what's a suitable job for a woman?' They wanted something that would allow me to have a job in Yugoslavia. There was a lot of unemployment.

"So they said that electrical engineering had a future because of all of the computers and electronic equipment. And I wouldn't have to lift anything heavier than a spoon. So that's how I ended up in electrical engineering. Electronics ... I actually had no idea what it was or what an engineer does."

In fact, during her first two years at the University of Novi Sad, Herman hated her pre-engineering studies and began to consider a career in psychology. But in her third year, she began taking hands-on engineering courses and became hooked. Her grades improved dramatically.

For today's award ceremony, Herman has arranged for her mother, who still lives in Yugoslavia, to fly overseas and join her at the White House, along with Martin Wetzel, the first Hopkins graduate student she supervised.

When asked if her mother now regrets that she thwarted Herman's career in medicine, the Hopkins researcher laughs. "I don't believe she even remembers it," Herman said.

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