Summer series: A calling for research. Aleksandra Radenovic, who heads the Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology in EPFL’s School of Engineering, spoke to us about her extraordinary life experience, which has made her into a researcher who values openness and close cooperation with her team.
"I never thought I’d become a professor. I never considered myself to be particularly gifted," says Aleksandra Radenovic. "But I’ve always enjoyed pushing my boundaries and trying new things." That curiosity - coupled with an avid interest in science - is what prompted her to pursue a career in research. And she has no regrets.
Radenovic, who is from Croatia, developed an interest in science after being inspired by a high-school teacher. "I initially wanted to become an archeologist and so I decided to study Latin and Greek," she says. "But then my physics teacher got me enthusiastic about that subject. So I enrolled at the University of Zagreb as a physics major, and later switched to biophysics so I could combine physics and biology."
Lessons from the conflict
Radenovic’s life was disrupted by the Yugoslav wars that ravaged the country between 1991 and 1995. Fortunately, the capital city of Zagreb was spared the worst of the fighting. "I don’t see myself as a victim - I didn’t lose my house or have to flee the city. But it was a time tough, and my whole family was really lucky," she says. However, her old high school was bombed during her first year at the university. Radenovic recalls her experience during the war with a sober tone, adding that it taught her some important life lessons. "Experiences like that shape you," she says. "I learned that nothing is permanent and everything can change in the blink of an eye. So now I try to live in the present and do what I can to build a better future."
After graduating with a physics degree, Radenovic obtained a PhD in biophysics from the University of Lausanne. She was one of the last students to graduate before the fundamental sciences were transferred to EPFL. Radenovic then worked as a postdoc fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, under the Swiss National Science Foundation’s postdoc exchange program. "I really liked how open-minded and international people were at Berkeley, as well as the freedom we were given. It was fun being a foreign student in that environment," she says.
Raising responsible citizens
In 2008, Radenovic was awarded an assistant professor position in EPFL’s bioengineering department. "I was glad to come back to Lausanne because I’ve always liked this city," she says. "And as a biophysicist I feel at home at EPFL, since it’s a cross-disciplinary school by nature. I appreciate the spirit of teamwork here and the discussions you can have with people who share the same interests. It’s a young, dynamic school." Radenovic also chose to start a family in Switzerland. "This country - unlike the Balkans - doesn’t have a violent past. I’d like my children to grow up in a climate of peace and respect, so that they can become global citizens and, as they get older, help protect our planet."
In her laboratory at EPFL, Radenovic aims to create an atmosphere where people feel free to express their opinions. "I also think it’s important to give each student a chance," she says. "I support and encourage my students as much as possible. You can’t work with people who you don’t appreciate."
1975: born in Zagreb, Croatia
1994-1999: studied physics at the University of Zagreb, Croatia
2003: obtained a PhD in biophysics from the University of Lausanne (under Prof. Giovanni Dietler)
2004-2007: worked as a postdoc fellow in the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley
2007: worked as a visiting scientist at NIDCR, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
2008-2015: worked as a tenure-track assistant professor in the bioengineering department of EPFL’s School of Engineering
2015-present: works as an associate professor (tenured) in the bioengineering department of EPFL’s School of Engineering