Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2020 Winner: Katarina Ilić

Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2020 Winner: Katarina Ilić
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2 years ago

Meet Our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2020 Winner: Katarina Ilić

We’re delighted to introduce our Lab Heroes Awards™ 2020 winner, Katarina Ilić, who received an incredible 93 nominations from current and former work colleagues who acknowledged her determination, passion for science, teaching skills, work ethic, knowledge, professionalism, resourcefulness, dedication, willingness to help and more.

Katarina was born in Zagreb where she graduated from the School of Medicine before completing an internship. She enrolled for Neuroscience PhD studies while working as a doctor in the Emergency Centre. In 2016 she became a teaching assistant for the Fundamentals of Neuroscience at the School of Medicine and now works as a researcher at the Laboratory for Molecular Neurobiology and Neurochemistry at the Croatian Institute for Brain Research. She completed her PhD two years ago.

We spoke to Katarina about her win, her current research, the challenges facing life science researchers, and her advice for fellow scientists.

Congratulations, Katarina! How did it feel when you found out that so many of your colleagues had nominated you as their Lab Hero?

Receiving so many nominations from my colleagues and students blew my mind. Reading all the things they wrote reminded me of the times I have met them and how they tried and eventually succeeded to accomplish their laboratory tasks. I have enjoyed spending time with them over the years, and it meant a lot when I read their memories of our time together too, and considered it to be worthy of a nomination. Above all, I was humbled and proud when I read nominations from my mentors over the years and realised how proud they were of my work. It is not an exaggeration to say that this award belongs to them as well, as their advice, supervision, experience and knowledge guided me to become the scientist I am today, one who is able to help others.

How did it feel when you found out you were our Lab Heroes winner?

I was absolutely thrilled! I immediately called my colleague (my own Lab Hero) who sent the first nomination. I think the idea behind this award is genius as it provides a platform to nominate “silent” heroes who don’t normally get particular recognition, and also for all the nominated heroes to become aware of the impact they have on others. I think reading nominations is extremely rewarding in itself, but winning the award was a nice cherry on top.

Why do you think it’s so important to champion life science researchers, and what more could be done to show life scientists recognition?

We know so much, but at the same time we have so many more things to discover. Whenever I start to read papers about a subject I am interested in, I often enter a rabbit hole, looking for more and more papers to unravel how things work. Then, I come to an end because we still don’t know everything and the last question - how? - remains unanswered. And at that moment I already have a layout of the lab work needed to perform the experiments, but realise it would require a lot more funding and a lot more people. I think we are sometimes lost in our great discoveries that we forget not many people would be as excited because they are not in the field, or even understand what is it that we do. So I think, if we communicated more with other people outside the science world, and explained the progress to them, as well as writing the papers, people would be more interested in our work in general.

What are you planning on using your Hello Bio vouchers and career development grant for?

Hello Bio has so many products that we could use in our cell culture experiments and imaging, so we will have to make a lab team decision when making a priority list for your products. As for the development grant, due to travel restrictions and many conferences switched to be held online, I will use the money for registration fees.

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

Not really. When I was a teenager the decision to study medicine slowly shaped in my mind. During my second year I started to volunteer in the Laboratory for Molecular Neurobiology and Neurochemistry and at that time I finished the Fundamentals of Neuroscience course and I fell in love with the combination - tackling the problems on a molecular level and understanding how the brain works. I finished medicine and started to work as a doctor, but the whole time I was wanting to become a part of the lab and research the brain. I think the general idea to figure out how things work and to learn more was what brought me here.

Tell us a bit more about what you're working on in the lab at the moment…

Me and my lab colleagues are working on a large project to decipher molecular mechanisms of acute and chronic injury in the brain. We analyze changes in the membrane caused by neurodegeneration in samples from human brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, we observe how changes in lipid composition of the membrane affect proteins of interest, their expression and activity. We also analyze the brains using MRI and correlate findings with behaviour and histological changes. Furthermore, as we are all part of the Centre for Excellence for Basic, Clinical and Translational Neuroscience, we analyze how membrane composition is changed after hypoxic injury.

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

Well, it always starts with coffee! Since the onset of the pandemic, it’s been a bit lonely in the lab as opposed to how we would usually gather from different labs and drink coffee and talk about our tasks for the day. Everything after that is a variable. We have regular meetings so we assign tasks and then organise our week according to that. Also, as we have medical students, we combine work in the lab with teaching.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists at the moment?

I think today it is more difficult for young scientists to establish their labs and get funding for their first project. There are a lot of opportunities worldwide to do your PhD thesis, but the next steps can be challenging.

What advice would you give to life scientists just starting out in their careers?

It is OK to fail. Sometimes students come with great ideas, but they want everything done perfectly on the first try. The thing I keep repeating is that it won’t work every time, and that is normal. We all learn from mistakes, try to make it better the next time, and the time after that. And two more times after you succeed to make it statistically significant. When they accept failing is a part of the job, but also not giving up, and learning something new every day, it is easier to see the big picture.

Which scientists working today do you most admire?

I think science today is a team sport and it is difficult to single out one person because behind that person is a lab full of heroes. I admire groups that we collaborate with. It is always amazing to see and meet the people behind the work you read about in papers, when you see who is behind all the that hard work (so definitely people from Kings College London, UK: Diana Cash’s and Ivana Rosenzweig’s group; team from Leibnitz Institute in Magdeburg, Germany: all the wonderful PhD students and postdocs that collaborate with Drs Rodrigo Herrera-Molina, Dirk Montag and Karl-Heinz Smalla; the amazing lab at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, USA with Dr Ronald Schnaar as the boss). Other than that, I am really impressed by the work from Iva Tolić’s lab at Ruđer Bošković Institute in Zagreb, Croatia. As we are in the same country, I know how difficult getting funding here can be, so I am very impressed by the work they are publishing.

What’s your favourite science quote?

“Science is magic that works.” - Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, and also, “Education isn't something you can finish.” - Isaac Asimov

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Thank you so much for a wonderful interview, Katarina! And congratulations once again! We look forward to keeping in touch with you and following your career as it progresses.

Katarina’s research funding comes from the Croatian Science Foundation, University of Zagreb projects and the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund, Operational Programme Competitiveness and Cohesion: CoRE ‐ Neuro.

You can connect with Katarina on social media in the following places:

And you can meet our other Lab Heroes AwardsTM 2020 prize-winners here.

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