Impassioned epigeneticist and assistant professor of psychology, Iva Zovkic has been a part of the UTM community since 2014, and was recently awarded the 2018 Dorothy Shoichet Women Faculty Science Award of Excellence in Psychology for the great strides she has been making in her research on the role of epigenetics in memory formation and age-related neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s. According to Zovkic, this award is one of the best she could ask for, calling it the “gift of time.” Winning this award will allow Zovkic to dedicate more of her time to research in the upcoming school year.

Last week, The Medium had the opportunity to speak with Zovkic about her labyrinthine journey to her career in academia, what fueled her interest in epigenetics, and what winning the Dorothy Shoichet Award means for her research.

When asked about her journey to becoming a professor, Zovkic explains, “My big goal was actually to become a lawyer. I was going to be prime minister after that. I actually started campaigning right after high school. So, I was a history major, and a minor in politics in my first year, taking psychology as an elective.”

It is from there that Zovkic decided she wanted to study psychology. Her interest was in industrial organizational psychology. In the second year of her undergrad, she decided to major in psychology and minor in business but realized quickly that she was not so keen on business. She was however, starting to realize her passion for research. According to Zovkic, there was only one problem, “I was freaked out by science, I didn’t want to do biology at the time. I avoided every biology class that I could.”

Until one term, Zovkic enrolled in a third-year psychology course called “Motivation and Emotions,” completely unaware of the heavy science content of the course. However, the course was taught “in an accessible way,” opening her up to the idea of science.  “I started to think maybe I could actually do this, and before I knew it, I decided to take all of those courses I was avoiding in neuroscience.” 

A key eureka moment in Zovkic’s academic career came during her graduate studies. Her principal investigator (the person in charge of a research project) brought her to an epigenetics conference. “It really changed the debate from Nature vs. Nurture to Nature via Nurture, basically meaning that there are definitely genetic differences [amongst us] but our experiences can also act upon your DNA. You’re getting [DNA] changes that are being activated or repressed based on your experience.” From then on, she became passionate about epigenetics.

For her post-doctoral studies, she took on a fellowship at the University of Alabama Birmingham. “I went from [behavioural-intensive] study to the more molecular-scale mechanisms of memory. It was a really cool experience. I really enjoyed my work there. I chose to focus on a new epigenetic mechanism that we haven’t studied in the brain yet, and I was able to get a publication about that, which kind of started a new subfield of epigenetics. With that discovery, I was able to get a job here, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Currently Zovkic’s research is focused on the study of epigenetic mechanisms of memory and “memory formation and how we maintain memory overtime.”

“One of the things about the brain is that it’s so dynamic and responsive to external stimuli. It can either lose that sensitivity to what’s happening or become oversensitive. Once you tip the balance in either direction, things can go wrong. Understanding what’s good and what’s bad for the brain, learning and memory in various contexts is super exciting to me.  There are a lot of biological changes that need to happen for a memory to become long-lasting—It goes through a lot of molecular events which stabilize that memory. We know that epigenetics fits into this picture, but how it fits in changes over time. I’m really interested in understanding that process, and how that process falls apart in the case of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, or even PTSD,” Zovkic explains.

Although Zovkic’s big goal at the beginning of her undergrad was to become a lawyer, by the end of her undergrad, she admits that she knew she wanted to follow this path to a career in academia.

“If you are going to purse [higher] academia, you need to really want it because it’s not an easy path. When you’re collecting data, it’s not always going to work. It’s going to be tricky at times, and there are days where you are going to have one failed experiment after another. It is definitely stressful at times,” Zovkic notes.

Grateful to Ashley Monks, the chair of psychology and an associate professor in the department, for nominating her for the award, Zovkic says that this honor is “really the best kind of award you could get.”

“I get a reduction of 1 full credit, so I only have to teach one half credit next year. That opens up a lot of time,” Zovkic says. “That award is going to make a huge difference because I can really use that time to write grants and brush up on my research on Alzheimer’s Disease. And with that extra time, more funding, and getting that research off the ground, it’s much easier to keep it going. I’m hoping to make really productive use of my time—it’ll be a lot of grant-writing, paper-writing, and attending conferences for me.”

Despite this great achievement coming early on in Zovkic’s career, she does have some ideas of what future steps she hopes to take in the research process.

“I do what I do because I have a major interest in basic science, but the older I get, the more I start to worry about what impact I’m making, if any, in the real world. I think I am starting to believe that the research I’m doing will lead to, at least, steps in the therapeutic approach towards memory disorders, especially Alzheimer’s,” Zovkic explains. “I really want that to be an actual achievement—a real benefit to people, not just some written line on a grant. Another thing I really want to do is introduce better mouse models, because I feel like right now, we have a lot of models that have limited utility for various reasons.”

Zovkic admits that balancing research and teaching can be “tricky” at times, but she manages to dedicate different time to each. In the summer when she’s not teaching, Zovkic explains that she spends her time catching up on her research.

“Teaching is something that’s actually a lot of fun. You get to talk to new people, and you get to have an audience for your exciting ideas, but at the same time it’s an extremely time-consuming endeavour when you’re trying to balance your research with your teaching goals. I think it gets easier over time, but when you’re first setting up your lectures the first time around it’s almost like you get nothing else done,” she says.

In regard to her experience as a woman studying science, Zovkic, speaking only from her own experiences, hasn’t “really ever felt like being a woman has stopped [her] from anything, nor has [she] felt like it was some kind of barrier.

“I think I’m partly lucky because of my odd path to science. I came into psychology, which is actually very dominated by women in the undergrad department.  Even in my post-doc, I saw a pretty fair gender ratio. And all the guys that I work with are always awesome, and very helpful. I’ve never really had the experience of not working with collaborative men. And I actually like that, that’s how I think it should be. You shouldn’t feel like your gender influences anything about how you do work, and I’ve never felt like it does.”

For the students taking Zovkic’s courses, she hopes that they can take away other valuable lessons instead of simply learning how to “memorize everything.”

“I think what I want my students to take away, first of all, is the excitement about knowledge and getting information. Second, is knowing how to find information and evaluate it critically. I’m really big on making my students evaluate data and understand research in my class. It can be daunting, but what I really want them to take away from all of this is to learn how to think. We can all memorize stuff, but for how long? I think it’s important to become an independent thinker, and if you don’t know something you can go figure it out. That’s really what university’s about, to learn how to think,” Zovkic says.

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