My path into the field of science spans across three generations, two continents and the worst conflict in Europe since WWII. When my grandmother’s hometown was wiped-off the map in the devastation of the Second World War, she moved to the capitol for a chance at a better life.
My grandmother became a member of a pioneering generation of college-educated women, and was among the first female chemists in post-WWII Yugoslavia.
She instilled an appreciation for the importance of education in my mother, who went on to pursue a doctorate in veterinary medicine.
In 1993, during the final year of my mother’s doctoral program, my parents and I were forced to leave Yugoslavia due to the raging civil war. Although she was not able to finish graduate school, I was guided by her sincere passion for science and life-long learning.
I was the first person in my family to go to college in the United States. I majored in biochemistry at UT-Austin. I wanted to experience laboratory research, but I found it exceedingly difficult to find an undergraduate position. In the summer following my sophomore year, I took time off from classes and moved back to Chicago in order to volunteer as a research assistant at DePaul University. I spent that summer and the following fall semester taking thousands of microcalorimetry measurements during the day and waiting tables at night to earn money for rent and train-fare. This laboratory internship renewed my enthusiasm for science and restored my determination to become a researcher.
When I returned to UT-Austin in the spring, I secured a competitive undergraduate research position within a lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. In order to pay my way through college, I also took on a position as quality control specialist at a regional tissue bank. Despite a full load of classes and a part-time job, I maintained a focus on my research.
As my training and experience grew, I began an independent research project. My work involved tailoring the surface chemistry of colloidal nanocarriers to enable loading of chemotherapeutic agents.
I presented my research in three poster sessions and was awarded two competitive research fellowships from UT-Austin. This work established my interest in materials and surface science.
Even after graduation, I continued working on my undergraduate research project at UT-Austin until its conclusion. However, I also took a research position within an engineering firm, which specialized in surface chemistry modifications of carbon nanotubes. I was provided with an opportunity to expand my skill-set into new areas of chemistry and materials science. After less than two years in industry, I was cited as an inventor on patents involving electrically conductive polymers and mechanically-reinforced composite materials.
As I developed my understanding of how surface modifications alter the bulk properties of materials, I became interested in the ability of surface properties to influence biological outcomes. In graduate school, I joined a lab which specialized in stem cell culture, extracellular matrix biology and tissue engineering. My current project synthesizes chemistry, molecular biology and materials science in order develop a novel understanding of how the mesenchymal stem cell microenvironment influences lineage-specific differentiation in the bone marrow. Specifically, I study the role of electrostatic interactions between surfaces and cells in altering physical signaling.
I am passionate about studying surfaces because worlds meet at their interfaces: like living cells and materials, like coming to a new country.