Ljubica Matic – from a journalist to an outstanding scientist

Name: Ljubica Matic
Did PhD at: Dept of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, Karolinska Institute
Current position: Assistant Professor, Division of Vascular Surgery, Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Karolinska Institutet
Interviewed by: Urszula Rykaczewska

Ljubica Matic is an Assistant Professor and a Team Leader of Vascular Molecular Medicine within the Division of Vascular Surgery at Karolinska University Hospital. Her scientific achievements are impressive. During the time she spent in the Vascular Surgery Group (2012 – present) she published 8 first-author papers, 1 last name paper and was a co-author on more than 42 publications, including 4 collaborative Nature-level pieces. Her teaming up with Professor Ulf Hedin resulted in an unprecedented multi-omics exploration of Biobank of Karolinska Endarterectomies (BiKE), which significantly increased the number of currently active projects relying on this resource to more than 70. In 2018 she was a co-recipient of the Heart-Lung Foundation’s Big Gift Grant of 15 million SEK and has been awarded the prestigious Sven and Ebba Hagberg Prize by Karolinska and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for her outstanding research on molecular mechanisms of smooth muscle cell function in atherosclerosis.

I got a first glimpse of Ljubica 4 years ago, when I was applying for a PhD position in the Vascular Surgery Group led by Prof Ulf Hedin. She was a postdoc during that time and I remember being so impressed with her scientific knowledge, passion for science and professionalism, that it made a huge impact on me. Since then I had the chance to closely work with her and witness her outstanding path towards leadership positions.

Ljubica was born curious. Always interested in the surrounding world, carefully observing and drawing the conclusions. When she was 15 she started to participate in children radio programs, which later resulted in her professional engagement in junior radio broadcasts. ‘This was the way to combine my love for writing, reading articles and observing the world around me’, she says. At the same time her interest in science grew, ‘My mom was my role model. She worked as a chemist and I used to spend a lot of time in the lab with her during summer holidays.’ Inspired by her mom and later also her biology teacher, she started studies at University of Belgrade and obtained her MSc degree in Molecular Biology in 2003.

PhD struggles

Decision about continuing her academic career came naturally, ‘Pursuing a PhD abroad was my way to get out of at that time politically conflicted Serbia, in search of a better education’. The time spent as a PhD student at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics (MBB) she remembers as both exciting and extremely difficult. She was aware from the beginning that while Serbian education gave her a lot of theoretical knowledge, she was still lacking hands-on experience in the field of molecular biology. ‘In the group where I was doing my PhD we had very high excellence standards. We were all the time chasing publications in the top journals in the field, therefore the pressure was immense. In the beginning I was painfully aware that I was slow and there was no one who could help me with hands-on supervision at the time’. This resulted in a major setback. While being in the third year of her PhD studies, wrapping up her major project, Ljubica was outcompeted by a group from Seattle which published in Nature Genetics. That was a turning point for her. ‘I was seriously considering quitting. And I probably would have done it, if it was not for my boyfriend who moved to Sweden and an enormous support that I received from my group.’ Her love for science won and she started from scratch. Another 4 years of hard work and in 2012 she defended her thesis ‘Identification and characterisation of kidney glomerulus associated genes and proteins’. She gained a lot of self-confidence from her struggles. ‘Even if there are those long periods when things do not work in my favor I can still withstand all of the difficulties and just work.

Outstanding scientist in making

So far, Ljubica has not considered a career in the industry. For her it was always academia and the main reason was her PhD supervisor, Prof Karl Tryggvason. ‘He was such a brilliant scientist participating in those major ground-breaking discoveries. I was simply very fascinated with him and was not prepared to leave science without making a real impact, a major stamp myself’. Following her supervisor’s advice, she switched the field to cardiovascular research after PhD and joined the Vascular Surgery group led by professor Ulf Hedin. Her postdoctoral project focused on characterisation of novel transcriptomic and proteomic biomarkers of atherosclerosis, but as she emphasizes, for her the attraction was never in the cardiovascular disease itself, but rather in the ability to step out of the molecular biology into a translational research. She wanted her research to benefit the patients. As a postdoc she was progressing exceptionally fast. ‘In the beginning you have to step down, just because you are new to the field. I was aware that the only correct way to make up for it and going forward was to work hard. Only publishing and receiving grants buys you the right to have an opinion and contribute to decisions that are made.’ This attitude gave results very fast. 4 months after she started she submitted her first grant application, while her first Arterioslerosis Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology publication was ready in 8 months. It became apparent, that her difficult time as a PhD student gave her some advantage: she was much faster and more independent than others. Her career was flourishing, while all of the projects were developing and expanding. ‘We have to be competitive because that is what is expected from us. It’s not easy to take your place in the structure that already exists’. Soon she became the main supervisor for several PhD students, received a number of prestigious grants and was offered a position of Assistant Professor.

When asked to give a presentation about her outstanding career path at Molecular Medicine and Surgery’s Faculty Meeting in Nov 2018 she finished her speech with a statement, that was also a tribute to her current boss and a friend, ‘Over the years I got a lot of support from Ulf. He is an exceptional mentor who doesn’t need to be in the spotlight all the time and knows exactly when to step back in order to give you the chance to grow. It is a great pleasure to be a part of the group, where people support you and genuinely appreciate every small result that you get’. She mesmerized the public with her modesty, but this is who she is in the every-day life. Colleagues describe her as passionate, determined and well-organized. Always striving to be the best version of herself. Never afraid of a constructive criticism, even when coming from her PhD students. As a supervisor she can be strict, but is always fair. Passionate herself, she encourages her students to pursue their ideas and provides a necessary infrastructure for them to thrive. ‘Doing a PhD in a healthy environment with proper supervision should shape you into a mature person, capable of making educated decisions that you feel safe about. For my own PhD students, I would like them to be able to say in the end of their PhD: Now I feel intrigued to go on and test two years in pharma or stay in science and feel confident enough to do it’.

There is no universal recipe for success. When asked about the qualities for which she has been appreciated during her professional career and which inevitably contributed to her outstanding career, she has a ready answer ‘I heard that I am fast, efficient and driven. People like to work with me, because they can see, that if I get engaged in the project, I work fast and they can rely on me’. But she highlights, that research is not only about being driven and efficient, ’As a good research leader you have to carry a combination of several additional factors: be genuinely interested in science, have excellent ideas and be able to collaborate with different people. Only then you will be successful’. And she knows exactly what she is talking about.

 

Photo: by Nenad Matic.

This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tags #careerportrait, #InsideAcademia and #OutsideAcademia listed below, for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!

 

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