Penn State and Croatia's University of Split deepen partnership

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Not many partnerships begin this way.

Years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Yugoslav war, the postwar government faced a grim challenge: identifying the bodies of the fallen. Many of them had been placed in mass graves. Due to the conflict, the advanced forensic equipment wasn’t advanced enough. Even if it had been, no one had the expertise required for such an undertaking.

Dragan Primorac, a Croatian national in a postdoc fellowship at the University of Connecticut, took it upon himself to look for assistance. After having many doors closed, Primorac reached out to Mitchell Holland, who, at the time, was heading the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Holland was a leading expert in forensic molecular biology.

Primorac, Holland and other experts in the field pioneered new technology and processes which led to efforts which, today, have identified over 90 percent of the victims of the war. Furthermore, it revolutionized forensic science around the globe.

“Forensic science is about truth and justice, but it’s also an important tool for peace, and for closure for loved ones,” says Primorac.

Through continued partnership, Primorac would later be named as the first Penn State Global Ambassador in 2016. Primorac — the former minister of science, education and sports of The Republic of Croatia — currently serves as an adjunct professor at the Eberly College of Science, among other notable appointments.

“Everything that has happened with this partnership has come from the friendship between Mitch Holland and I, which started 27 years ago,” said Primorac. “I truly believe that a partnership cannot succeed without friendship. That’s a message that I spread around the world whenever I travel.”

Holland joined Penn State as a faculty member in 2005, helped to develop the forensic science program, and brought with him his Croatian contacts. Many of these contacts were a part of the University of Split — and thus, through the efforts of Holland and the Office of Global Programs, a new Penn State partnership was formed.

Though it began with forensic science, the partnership has recently begun to diversify its offerings. A multidisciplinary delegation of 11 students, led by Alen Soldo, Split’s vice rector for science and international cooperation, recently visited Penn State in September. For this particular program, deans from Split hand-pick students for the exchange program with the intent to establish international connections. Students come from a variety of disciplines, ranging from art to engineering to marine biology.

“It just works,” said Soldo. “We want to raise cooperation to a higher level. It’s incredible … I don’t think a week has gone by this year where there hasn’t been either a Split delegation here, or a Penn State delegation in Croatia.”

Primorac echoes this.

“Every day, there is some collaboration going on between Penn State and the University of Split. It’s my dream to see our universities create a model for collaboration in other disciplines — chemistry, economics, law, medicine — as I believe we have in forensics,” he said.

The universities are taking steps to make that dream a reality. They are working to gain Erasmus+ funding to further mobility between Penn State and Split, and the College of Medicine sent a delegation of students to Split in June of 2017; and, there are plans for an upcoming delegation from Penn State Law to visit Croatia. Recently, a visitor from the university library at Split visited Penn State’s library system, with stops including University Park and Altoona libraries. Soldo also teaches a joint course in marine biology with Renee Bishop-Pierce (Worthington-Scranton).

“This partnership has developed beyond my expectations,” said Martin Trethewey, director of Penn State’s Global Engagement Network. “We now have a plan and we’re working to sustain it. Our biggest focus is harnessing all of the energy of the partnership — a good problem to have!”

A new slew of projects, funded jointly by Penn State and Split, promises to do just that. Already, over a dozen projects are planned:

  • “Youth Aspirations, Identity, and Demographic Change in Rural Croatia: Implications for Education and Rural and Regional Development” (Kai A. Schafft, Sanja Stanić)
  • “High quality reconstruction of ultrasound tomography using total least squares with edge- preserving constraints” (Jesse L. Barlow, Ivan Slapničar)
  • “Common e-learning domain for the initial courses in the STEM” (Wendy Hanna-Rose, Marko Rosić)
  • Coastal Marine Environmental Science (Renee E. Bishop Pierce, Alen Soldo)
  • Arts and Humanities Initiative (Beatriz Rivera-Barnes, Brian Willems)
  • Forensic Historical Identification (Mitchel M. Holland, Željana Bašić)
  • Sculpting Project (Cristin Millett, Robert Jozić)
  • “Connecting the University of Split and Penn State Beaver through Collaborative Online International Learning” (Jenifer Cushman, Igor Jerkovic)
  • “Real time aerial image processing from UAV for search and rescue, firefighting and other socially useful applications” (Guido Cervone, Sven Gotovac)
  • Building a long‐term collaboration between the Penn State University – College of Medicine and the University of Split School of Medicine (Ben Fredrick, Zoran Đogaš)
  • “Realizing Economic Development of Tourism Linkages Through Croatian Local Food and Agricultural System” (Amit Sharma, Maja Fredotović)
  • “Active Learning in STEM Education” (Wendy Hanna-Rose, Jasna Puizina)
  • “Effects of Religion and Deployed Husbands on Women” (Melissa LaBuda, Goran Kardum)
  • “Customized Sustainable Housing For Split (And/Or Generic Models For Urban Development)” (Jose Duarte, Hrvoje Njiric)
  • “Combining Traditional Stone Crafting Techniques With Digital Technologies” (Jose Duarte, Boris Trogrlic)

“It’s great,” said Soldo. “We look forward to sharing knowledge together. Everyone can get something out of this and we can really make a difference.”

“My friend and mentor, Shimon Peres [President of Israel], always said, ‘There is no room for small dreams,’” said Primorac. “That is the philosophy of the Penn State-Split partnership moving forward. We are going to dream big — and achieve.”

For additional information, visit the Global Programs website on the Penn State-University of Split partnership.

A second round of seed money for activities between the two universities is expected to be available in early February. To become involved with the partnership, contact Martin Trethewey at

Last Updated January 26, 2018