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Interview with Stefan Mladjenovic


📷 McMaster University

Journalist: Kian Kousha



Kian: Welcome to SciSection, my name is Kian, and I am bringing you this week's Scientist of the week segment. Today’s interview is really exciting, we have the honour of having the 2020 faculty of Science valedictorian at McMaster University. So without further ado

let’s begin.

Thanks for coming to our show! Would you mind introducing yourself to our listeners?


Stefan: Of course, first of all thank you Kian for having me on and it’s my pleasure. So my name is Stefan Mladjsnovic and I just graduated from McMaster 2020 for the life sciences program and I’m gonna be continuing with some more school down the road and that should keep me engaged for the next several years.


Kian: That’s awesome! So let us start with some fun questions so our audience can get to know you a bit better. Who is your favourite musician of all time?


Stefan: So there are a couple musicians or artists kind of groups which come to mind, I feel like it’s a pretty common response where you have different musicians you like when you’re at different moods or kinds of stages. I always liked Coldplay, like upbeat music, but also some more slow-paced reflective stuff. I also like this rapper, his name is Mac Miller. There’s this other rapper I really like, his name is Loyal Carter, he’s more like a poet, he has just great lines and raps over a lot of jazz beats and it’s very nice.


Kian: That's cool! Our second question, how do you define happiness?


Stefan: So I think happiness for me is always changing in different contexts. I think for me it’s more about actually keeping a consistent baseline, just inner peace, outer peace and tranquillity. It’s not so much about spikes, like you know when something really great happens, it’s more about constantly being content.


Kian: That’s awesome! and if you could meet/work with any scientist dead or alive, who would it be?


Stefan: He recently passed away, his name was Grant Imahara and he was from MythBusters. And he just seems like a really lovely and a captivating science communicator and I would have loved to have the chance to meet with him.


Kian: Alright, that’s so cool! So I know you started research at McMaster at Dr. Juliet Daniel’s lab and also you worked with Dr. Katie Moisse. So now that you’ve graduated, what research or projects are you currently working on?


Stefan: I’m still actually working with both Dr. Katie Moisse and Dr. Juliet Daniel. with Dr. Juliet Daniel’s Lab, I'm working with PhD student Shawn Hercules as well as two other undergraduates, Mina and Chen from the Daniel Lab, on a systematic review of triple negative breast cancer in women of African ancestry. Triple-negative breast cancer is the most aggressive subset of breast cancer and it disproportionately affects premenopausal women of African ancestry. And with Dr. Katie Moisse, I am working on pedagogical research and really exploring how to improve and engage students with accessibility using online lecture capture tools such as echo360.


Kian: That is actually really relevant to these times that we are in, with online school and everything, so what do you think about the universities’ approach with online learning?


Stefan: I think one kind of general thing to always keep in mind is, if these infrastructures are put in place, let's say we have echo360 support or another lecture capture tool, even after the pandemic, for the sake of accessibility, it makes sense to keep these tools in use. So you already built these infrastructures, professors and instructors already know how to use these tools, and students know how to uses these tools, so from an accessibility standpoint and the research that we did reflexes this, it improves learning outcomes and overall experiences in the classroom, and students have access to, let's say live streams or being able to watch podcasts after the class finished, like pre-recorded videos or recorded live, live transcripts. So I think it's going to be very interesting, both in the year ahead but more importantly in the long term, the whole system of education and how it will look, we’ll see, we’ll see, that's all I could say.


Kian: Are there any areas that this (the system we have currently going on) can improve on?


Stefan: I think there’s always room for improvement in any kind of system, I think one of the biggest things is identifying what are the needs of instructors and the students, institutions, and then, really talking one on one and/or with the groups to really understand how we can meet those needs. So for example, the needs are often specific to clusters and to individuals, so if you’re an international student and you need to be online for a lecture that’s in real time, synchronous kind of learning, if the time zone differences are really off, then its important to really reach out to those groups and to account for/ to facilitate for their accessibility. So, maybe instead of doing a live kind of lecture, you do something that's prerecorded, so I guess understanding the needs of instructors and students, and a lot of instructors might also have children and commitments so it's important to be wary and be aware of those things.


Kian: Right, and your fields of research seem to be really different from each other, in communications and also in cancer, so how do you find a balance between these two? And, do you have a favourite?


Stefan: I don’t have a favourite, but I think they’re both near and dear to me. So, the cancer research stuff, my mom passed away from breast cancer two weeks before I started my undergrad, so that kind of breast cancer research is very near to me from that dimension, if you will. And then regarding the pedagogy and accessibility research and education, I think its really important that people have access to education cause it's a great method or approach to learn more about yourself and the world around you and really connect and engage with other people, it’s very powerful.


Kian: Right, and I know starting from September, you are going to study your graduate studies, so how do you think it would be different from your undergrad?


Stefan: So yeah, I’m doing biomedical engineering, I’m doing a direct entry PhD program and I’ll be starting in just about a week from now, time flies. It’s hard to say how it will be different, I think it will be much more independent because, you know, going from an undergrad to a graduate level, I think it’s a big step up and I think the research will be more rigorous in some way because when I was in undergrad, you’re doing a thesis, let’s say I was in third year and I was doing my thesis with Dr. Julia Daniel, it’s almost like a course and you’re doing research. In undergrad, you’re only doing courses and when you’re in grad school you have a little focus on courses but your primary focus is on doing the research. So I think I'll have a lot of time which I’ll have to dedicate to it and it will be fun!


Kian: That is exciting! just to change the type of questions we have, what do you think you did differently compared to your peers when you were a student that helped you become who you are today? Whether personally or professionally.


Stefan: I think there’s a couple of things, well, first of all I really don’t know what my peers did so that’s kind of hard to compare, from that standpoint, but I do know that I am very thankful that I am very privileged in many dimensions and I’ve had many great mentors and I sought out these mentors and they’ve helped me to double down on my strengths and also helped me identify areas of improvement and how I can do that. So, from yourself, you can see yourself in some limited way, but from the outside people can see somethings that you may not pick up on, especially when your mentors have a lot more experience in these things. Some of my mentors are Dr. Juliet Daniel, Dr. Katie Moisse, Dr. Lovaye Kajiura, Dr. Sean Park and Dr. Robert Fleisig, very thankful for all of them, my dad, my mom, my art school teacher from grade 9, Mr. McClaire, many mentors, my brothers Milan and Alex, I love them both, I love them all.


Kian: So a lot of us students usually gets fascinated by success, personal or professional, but without knowing all the challenges that were faced along the way. I’m sure being in the position that you are now, doing research and being selected as valedictorian, did not happen easily. So, can you tell usabout some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way as a student?


Stefan: Of course. First of all I think it’s a really important question because it’s easy to highlight the strengths and the positives without realizing that there are a lot of setbacks that come with that. So I think, one of the biggest one obviously losing my mom, it wasn’t easy and I was 18 years old, two weeks before I began my undergrad, there's a lot of different changes and that added a whole another layer to that. But, in many ways, through the challenges I was able to empower myself and find strength. I have had many late nights but that has been my fault due to procrastination and poor time management, but I’m honestly not going to lie, I’m very thankful and very privileged in many dimensions and you know, any success that I have or any body has is not just for that one person, it's the whole team that has supported you right from the start and the beginning. It takes a village to raise a child, as they say.


Kian: Exactly. May she rest in peace.


Stefan: Thank you.


Kian: What kind of advice do you have for students who are listening to the show right now and are interested in pursuing research, similar to you.


Stefan: I think one of the biggest things is to start, so it’s kind of like in physics, you have your static friction, which is harder to overcome than your kinetic friction. So getting that kind of first start of movement is the hardest but once you start something, it becomes much easier. So in a practical and more concrete sense, start reading up on those research papers, well first identify what is interesting to you to research, read about different professors in that space and just send that email, you know they’re always looking for great students and honestly maybe you won’t get into the first lab you are interested in, but just try. There’s another quote:


Stefan: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take so just take that shot, send that email and put in that stepping stone so you can get somewhere further.

Kian: What do you think our scientific community needs the most right now?


Stefan: I think in general, two things, one is empathy and the other is accessibility and they often interrelate. Making articles more accessible, Dr. Katie Moisse is an expert in science communication and I’ve learned a lot of this from her, and how can you really convey the science without really diluting the importance or the factual aspects of it. How can you really get your message across so more people can engage in your science and your research is more accessible, I think that’s important.


Kian: Right and that’s exactly what we do at SciSection, we always try to teach people the applied aspects of science, so not necessarily all the huge ones like DNA transcription, but we try to connect people to science. And our final question, if you were a novel, what would you be called and why?


Stefan: Before I answer that, I just want to say thank you for doing this show because this is exactly what we need, so thank you. And the novel, I think I would just title it Why, because I always just ask why and the rationale behind people's thinking, what they do, why they do what they do and I’m very curious and I like to learn a lot of things. I always ask why, and I think going back to what I may have said in another part, I think that’s a very beneficial trait, that kind of growth mentality and always trying to understand why things work the way they work, or don’t work and how you can improve it.


Kian: That sounds awesome! Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today. That’s it for this episode, make sure to check out our social media to get updates on our latest events, episodes and interviews.


Stefan: Thank you again so much and best of luck to you in your future


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