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Alumna Ana Vujic talks about her passion for heart research and the challenging road to success

In this Q&A Ana Vujic (Medical Sciences - IMS, Metabolic & Cardiovascular Disease, 2008) tells us about her career in cardiology.

What are you currently working on? What did you study and how did that lead into what you're doing now?

I am currently a Career Development Fellow at Cambridge Centre of Cardiovascular Research Excellence, where I lead research projects with the goal of identifying novel strategies to combat heart failure. I work with the fantastic teams at Thomas Krieg (EMIT) and Mike Murphy (MRC-MBU). Before that, I worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Department, Harvard University. There, I investigated different ways to stimulate endogenous heart regeneration, and heart repair after a heart attack, as well as blood-borne factors involved in regulation of age-induced heart disease. And while I really enjoyed the work that I did at Harvard as a postdoc, I always wanted a chance to lead my own research team.

I have a special relationship with Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College, as this is where I started my research career. I was a Wellcome Trust/British Heart Foundation funded PhD student (2008-2012), at the Institute of Metabolic Sciences, with a specific interest in epigenetic regulation of heart failure. I had a really inspiring supervisor, Roger Foo - that with an infectious enthusiasm and passion for science mentored me during my PhD. Directly after my PhD, I was offered to move to Singapore, to help set up Professor Roger Foo’s lab there and finish my research studies. Roger’s lab has become a hub for cardio-epigenetic research and I am so very grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of that journey. We are great friends and we also have collaborative projects between here and his team at NUS-Singapore. 

Why did you choose Lucy? What was and is the best thing about being part of the Lucy community?

Prior to arriving in Cambridge, I had no idea which college to choose, as we don't have a college culture in Sweden. Therefore, when I was in the position to make my selection, I picked colleges according to a friendly webpage description, since I didn't expect to spend much time in college anyway. However, I was lucky that my advisors knew better, and I got Lucy Cavendish College. This turned out to be a better choice for me, as there were only mature students like me. I already had a M.Sc. when I arrived, and I had worked in different Clinical laboratories in Sweden. I loved the supportive, calm and safe space that Lucy Cavendish College provided away from home. We had training days in presentation skills and we got constructive feedback from other students and Fellows of the college. I also got travel support so I could go to an American Heart Conference and present my work. It was easier to connect to other students and Fellows during formal dinners, as we were a smaller crowd compared to other colleges. (Oh, and Lucy Cavendish formals had the best desserts)

What inspired you to pursue this career? What are your key motivations? What are you ultimately trying to achieve? 

Personally, I have always had this childish excitement for novel ideas, the latest advancement, and figuring out how things are related or how “it really works”. My drive has been to make a difference for people around me that are suffering and I know quite a few that suffer from heart disease-including close relatives. This is not a surprise, since heart disease is the top one cause of death in the middle to high income countries, and with increasing age as well as rise in hypertension, diabetes and obesity world-wide we also see an increase in people diagnosed with heart disease such as heart failure. Question is how do we stop this trend and how do we help all of these individuals? Especially since for some types of heart failure, the treatment options are extremely limited. I hope that our research and team-efforts will bring us a better understanding and knowledge about the events leading to a failing heart, and also a chance to develop new treatment strategies. For example, we know that something as simple as 30 min exercise per day is cardioprotective, but we still don't know exactly how and why.

What have been the best and worst moments of your study or career so far? 

During my early career, scientists were often seen as introverted individuals hiding in the lab working on their experiments, pondering about hypotheses, living for the thrill of a discovery. However, the image of a scientist/researcher has changed a lot in the last decade. Studies, even if published, were often not accessible to the wider community that would ultimately benefit from it. Now, a decade later, besides trying to solve important but very challenging questions, there is a strong focus on marketing skills and building a brand for yourself as a scientist. You still have to stay on top of the latest technology and research across disciplines, and try to implement novel approaches that may lead to new discoveries that can then become a start-up or maybe a partnership with industry and eventually a therapy, but the road to there is not straight forward.

The competition for funding is very tough, and as a scientist you are living in a climate of constant rejection, often with an ‘imposter syndrome’ and lack of job security. Even though scientific research is a ‘luxury branch’ for a society and therefore not always a priority in terms of budgeting, we also see how crucial it has been in helping us navigate the pandemic. The mRNA vaccine research has been within the research labs for quite some time before the pandemic, although not many knew about it, but it has turned out to be life-saving. Now this technology may be used to treat other diseases too. Raising awareness by promoting science has become important and various social media platforms are used to increase the impact of our work. More and more scientific journals have open access and sometimes even their own podcast. Thus, there is a whole additional set of skills required as a scientist today. It puts a lot of pressure on the individual to ‘do it all’ with a tight budget. Also since the results are more accessible to the public, it is also much easier for someone in the community to take some results out of context and share it as facts to promote their message. This entire development is exciting but also incredibly challenging to navigate.

What would be your advice to students who wanted to pursue a similar career? 

I think that it helps to have a buoyant personality to pursue this career. I think it is important to be able to hold both the good and the bad, acknowledge that we can be a powerful force to be reckoned with, but that there are also long time-periods when it feels really dark.

We hear a lot of people talk about growth lightly, as if it is just something you do without too much sacrifice. I think that it is important to acknowledge that growth is painful, and it requires bravery. It requires stepping out of your comfort zone and maybe breaking out of your safety net. To dare to try something that maybe no one in your family has done before, to break free from limiting ideas about your own abilities, potential or worth given to us by our society/ gender identity or cultural narrative. Sometimes being brave can be something as simple as putting your headphones on with your favourite tune (really really loud), while the negative voices “you don't have what it takes” disappear into the background, and you take a step forward on a new path and one step closer towards your dream.

I adore Michelle Obama, and in her book, Becoming, she addresses the common question of what to become when one grows up, she answers “ Now I think it's one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child - What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Maybe that is the best advice, that we are not a finished product, that we are constantly exploring and have the power to change our story. That we can choose a career now, and then choose again…and right now I am a heart researcher and I am passionate about it.