There are no crossed wires when discussing doctoral student Vedrana Cvetkovska's enthusiasm for science. "Since I was young, I have always been curious about nature and the interactions between animals," she says. "I was full of questions and wanted to know how we were all connected."
This question still echoes into her current research. Under the mentorship of Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) investigator Brian Chen, she is studying how the developing brain produces proper nerve-to-nerve cells connections.
"The processes that allow the brain to become properly wired and that allow nerve cells to connect are fascinating and still unsolved," says Cvetkovska. "We do however have some clues."
Dscam: A critical molecule
One of these is the protein Down Syndrome Cell Adhesion Molecule (Dscam), which has been shown to have a significant role mediating nerve cell connection. Cvetkovska and Chen's research findings, which were published in the June 2013 issue of Nature Neuroscience, demonstrated that elevated levels of Dscam are associated with inappropriate nerve cell associations. This in turn may lead to impaired brain function and intellectual disability.
"We believe that maintaining the correct levels of Dscam is crucial for proper brain development and circuit formation," she adds.
A motivated student
Cvetkovska's passion has hit the right note within the research community. Over the last year she has been awarded the McGill MedStar Award, the Fonds de recherche du Québec - Santé Étudiants-chercheurs étoiles Award and the Integrated Program in Neuroscience's Ann and Richard Sievers Award.
"I'm very honoured by these awards," says Cvetkovska. "I'm particularly grateful to the Sievers family. Their funding will allow me to further explore the role of in nerve cell wiring."
Curiosity continues to drives Cvetkovska when pondering future plans. After completing her doctorate studies this year she has prospects lined up for continuing her studies as a post-doctoral fellow. After this, she is hoping to direct her own research lab. "I really hope this is where life takes me," she says. "There is so much to be learned in the field of developmental neuroscience."
Her advice to future students is pragmatic; "This is a demanding environment where you have to work hard. To keep a positive outlook it is important to have activities that are outside the lab." Hiking, photography and volunteering with the Animal Rescue Network, keep Cvetkovska motivated and balanced.
Cvetkovska balances work and life while keeping her eye on the ball. When asked about the main influences that led to her career choices, she laughingly mentioned that neither of her parents were life scientists yet her and her two sisters are all in academia. "Perhaps it was our parents love of reading and a questioning environment that has led us all to studying the natural sciences," she says.
"There is nothing as satisfying as being the first to discover something. My work is contributing to better understanding of our world and this is incredibly rewarding".