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Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Mirjana Maletić-Savatić

Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Mirjana Maletić-Savatić

Dr. Mirjana Maletić-Savatić is a neuroscientist at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Section of Neurology, at Baylor College of Medicine. Her research focuses on understanding the biology that drives the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus—the center for learning, memory, and mood control—that could potentially lead to transformational treatments for learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.

Recently, Dr. Maletić-Savatić discussed how science played a role in her childhood in the former Yugoslavia and how her experiences have influenced her work at the Duncan NRI.

How did your childhood shape your passion for science?

Science has been a huge part of my life since I was a young child. My mother was a professor of mathematics, and science was held in the highest regard when I was growing up. My brother and I participated in science clubs and organizations from the earliest age.

One of my fondest memories was when my brother, a middle schooler at the time, made powerful magnets using spare parts he got from a junkyard (it might not surprise you that he’s a physicist now). I took these magnets and examined how they would impact bone marrow cells. I found that if cells were introduced to this powerful magnetic field, the chromosomes would breakdown! For these experiments, I received a national prize in biology in the tenth grade, and from then on, I knew that this kind of research would be my passion and career.

What is the focus of your research?

Questions surrounding the longevity of the mind drive my research. How can we keep learning as long as we live? As we age, we lose the ability to create new memories, but what if we didn’t? Hopefully, the work we’re doing in my lab will ultimately help alleviate the problems associated with various learning difficulties and different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Interestingly, just as I did when I was a child, I still use magnets in my research! We’ve developed imaging tools to study neurogenesis in animals and in the human brain, a major accomplishment that allows us to translate research more quickly to clinical applications.

What do you enjoy most about working at the Duncan NRI?

When I came to the United States in 1992, I had just escaped from the war in Yugoslavia, and we were refugees living in poverty. It was the generosity of scientists at Stony Brook University, and later at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, that enabled me to stay in the United States, develop as a neuroscientist, and train as a child neurologist. After 18 years in New York, I moved to Houston and was worried I wouldn’t find a community and family—after all, New York is very different from Houston. But I found just the opposite.  

The Duncan NRI feels like my family and my home. We are a network of supportive and kind people who are driven to lift each other up for the common goal of making meaningful scientific discoveries. That is because our leader, Dr. Huda Zoghbi, has cultivated an incredible culture of generosity. We are not competing with each other for recognition, because we believe that if we work together, we can collectively solve the mysteries behind more diseases and help develop cures.

How does art play a role in your life?

While my mother showed us the value of science, my father showed us the value of art. He was a publisher of medieval art books and enrolled me in two parallel schools from the age of five: one was a traditional school, and the other was a music conservatory, where I learned to play piano and compose. Actually, for a long time, I believed I was going to be a concert pianist!

As a neuroscientist, I find art in everything. There must be a beauty in experimental design, in how we approach our analysis. Because of my father, there was a lot of diversity in my education, and I think that shaped the way I approach some of the most complex questions in science.

What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab, when you aren’t solving medical mysteries?

I’m an avid reader of all books—I read everything, from cookbooks to murder mysteries to architecture and historical accounts. Right now, I am reading a book about the scientific mind of Leonardo da Vinci, who is one of my favorite people because of the way he observed extraordinary details in everyday life. I try to emulate that approach in my life and when I think about a scientific problem.

I also love the museums here in Houston. I go to the Menil as often as I can, and most Saturdays you could find me in the Heights exploring contemporary galleries.