Who are you?

I am Kristina Mojtić and I am one of the pioneering students in the Engineering tracks here at UCR.

Where are you from?

I am from Croatia but was born in Macedonia. I have lived in both countries but went to school in Macedonia. Macedonia is very diverse, just like UCR is. There are lots of cultures: Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish; people from all over the Balkans. I am Macedonian-Croatian. In general, Macedonia is characterized by a very welcoming culture, open to many different people.

Why did you come to UCR?

In high school already I knew that I wanted to combine mathematics with chemistry. I could not find a university back home where they had a program that allowed of that. So I looked at universities abroad and I found one in Denmark. I started learning the language but I realized that the two years I had for doing so just weren’t enough to reach the academic level.

My mom told me that there are lots of good universities with English-taught programs in the Netherlands. She had heard that from a friend. Through Utrecht University’s website I ended up on the UCR website and it seemed that here, I could make the combinations I wanted.

Did you know about Liberal Arts and Sciences at that point?

I had no idea. In my country there is no university like this. You either study this or you study that. If you want to make combinations then you will have to study two complete programs. I asked myself, but it this correct, is this really possible at UCR? So I traveled to the Netherlands and visited your Open Day last year February. And it turned out that, yes, what I wanted was possible. And then I am also very much interested in history and languages so, yes, this worked for me.

How is it for a foreign prospective student to visit the Open Day?

It was helpful. I brought my father. We spoke with dr. De Wit. He was the right person to talk to – he seems to know everything. I also visited a program at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. But I liked the UCR community better and the opportunities for making interesting combinations of disciplines are more attractive here.

How is it to be one of these pioneering students in Engineering?

It is, well, interesting… Since we are pioneering we do not know exactly what the program is going to look like exactly. That is part of pioneering, but that does not make it any easier. In the projects we are in, for instance, our professors said “Well, you are going to do some research and your are going to create something.” First, it was all so broad, we were free to do just about everything. And then there was this idea of group work, none of us had experience with that. But I have to say that after the first project and having started the second now, we know much more.

So you have learned something?

Definitely, most importantly how to work in a group and how to lead a group. We had to develop our communication skills and that I found really helpful for the other courses I am in as well.

That is all about social learning skills, but what was the project about as an engineering project, what did you create in the end?

The first project, last Fall, was on energy transition. Initially we set out to create bioplastics but they turned out not to be sustainable at all. Some articles suggested that organic leather can be produced from tea. If you can create faux leather that you can wear or use without the cattle farming, well, that helps a lot with the energy transition. The whole thing was very experimental. First we tried one type of tea and it didn’t work: we had holes in the material all the time. We tried another one and we created nothing interesting at all. But eventually we found Oolong tea, and that did the job.

Is it difficult to produce the organic leather?

Once you know how it works it is not really difficult. It takes about a month to grow the material. You need Oolong, water, vinegar, and sugar to help the bacteria grow.

It is a bacterial process? Does it stink?

It is, and it stinks during the fermentation process. The whole thing takes about a month at room temperature. You get the material out, you wash it with soap and cold water and then you dry it for about a week or a week and a half. We wanted to make it water resistant by applying some oil but we did not really succeed in that.

How much theory is involved in an engineering project?

Before engaging in the experiments we did a lot of reading and we did quite some research into the kinds of oil to use. Olive oil was our best bet, but unfortunately we did not really complete that part of the experiment. To come back to your question: the theory sets the framework and then the experiments help us test the theory and hopefully come to a successful application.

I am now engaged in a second project about sensing systems and sustainability. We are building a system for measuring air quality in sea ports. We work with North Sea Port in Vlissingen. The port runs a sustainability project and they are quite interested in our measurements and data. I hope that in the end they will really use them. One of the challenges will be to see how the system – which is meant to measure environmental factors – will itself be influenced by the environment. And as to the measurements themselves, we focus on the greenhouse emissions CO2 and CO and air quality, looking at ammonium, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide.

To what extent does North Sea Port’s sustainability policy play a role in the project?

It’s a given framework within which we work. Analyzing it as a piece of policy is not part of our project. But working with the port is great. They do something important and I know I am contributing to that. I am primarily a science student interested in technological applications. But as a human being I really care about the environment and all the people around me. So I identify with this strongly.

And what are you building in the end?

Well, the sensor is a little bit bigger than a mobile phone. We work with a breadboard that connects sensors and this is connected to an arduino. These are all electronic elements and now we need to find out how to fit these in the sea port. We are currently looking into this and I would expect that we will place them at a height of around two meters.

I think that we have now reached the limits of what I genuinely understand…

Well, on another level, you may be interested to know that the Zeeuws Museum is open to letting us present our project there. It will be after the mid-term break and a good opportunity to present our work to a larger audience, not just as a technical project but as one with societal relevance.

Looking at this project-based approach, is this different from what you experienced in high school?

In school we learned a lot of theory but there was not much room for applying it in practice. The engineering program gives me the opportunity to do just that. The whole experience is exciting. It is something new and we help build a new department. I have had moments where I thought that it would be easier to be in a set program. But often I am having fun.

Do you have a closing message for our community?

That’s a big question. Live at UCR can get stressful. You have to study a lot. We should strive to work hard but we also have to care for ourselves. I think that you don’t need to push yourself all the time. Take a step back, relax, do something that eases your mind.

What do you do?

I dance! I am going to participate in the national sports competition of all the colleges in the Netherlands. I do hip-hop, latin, and ballroom dancing. We have a small group here at UCR and we dance together. And we relax. Life is about more than academic results.