Julijana Gjorgjieva. Mentor within the SMARTSTART Programm
A Bernstein Sloan-Swartz scholarship brought Julijana Gjorgjieva from the USA to Germany in 2015. Today, she is group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and actively committed to the training of the "next generation in computational neuroscience".
/BN, C. Duppé/ Julijana Gjorgjieva loves her work as a lecturer and researcher. The scientific community keeps her “on her toes”, especially when working with young scientists – similar to her rowing in the sports context. Her hobby reflects her character and is also an indicator of her scientific stations. Working in a team and working with young talents characterizes the researcher just as much as the ambition and delight when achieving things together; she was educated at the renowned universities in the two Cambridges of this world: Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in Great Britain. Both were important mooring places of the young successful scientist, who started her research group “Computation in Neural Circuits” in 2016 at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt a. M.
The journey to Germany and the Bernstein Network began in 2015 for the then 31-year-old with the Bernstein Conference in Heidelberg, which she could attend thanks to a Bernstein-Sloan-Swartz travel grant. Since 2016 she has been an active and committed member of the Bernstein Network and an agile crossover scientist between disciplines and scientific hotspots of this world. She began as a mathematician in Great Britain, where her enthusiasm for interdisciplinary brain research was nurtured by summer schools in systems biology and neuroscience; they opened a “new world full of exciting and fascinating questions.”1
Gjorgjieva always tries to apply her mathematical competence to biological questions. “When I applied for graduate schools, I first looked for programs in mathematical biology: from epidemiology to ecology to heart modelling. However, after taking a course in computational neuroscience, I knew that neuroscience was the area where I wanted to apply my mathematical skills”. Gjorgjieva is fascinated by the brain as the organ that “separates us from other organisms”. No technological achievement, no matter how modern, nor any current artificial intelligence can imitate the capacity of the brain, so Gjorgjieva’s passionate plea for her science. Only AlphaGo has made it so far, but only to a very limited extent, she admits. In her eyes, computational neuroscience offers much more variety in terms of scientific challenge than a match of ‘go’.
Gjorgjieva works towards understanding the evolutionary organizational principles of neuronal systems, especially during development. For her, this is the most significant phase in the life of an organism. Her model organism to observe this process is the mouse. She investigates data from the developing brain to understand how neural networks function shortly after birth and how they behave over a period of seven days. Spontaneous activity during this period is important for structuring and controlling neuronal connectivity. This process can be simulated from the data with mathematical models. Here, the scientist approaches the questions from different points of view, on the one hand with a normative theoretical framework, on the other with a so-called bottom-up approach, with which she investigates individual components such as nerve cells or synapses.
With the help of her models Gjorgjieva can then derive a statement about the functioning of the network. Here, she is quite pragmatic. “Mathematical models help us decipher the complexity of neuronal circuits. In the end, however, they must stand up to reality. Therefore, I collaborate closely with experimental colleagues to determine the relevant parameters for my models.”2 She hopes that some of the basic insights she gains from her research will eventually help to find the cause of developmental disorders and to be able to treat them accordingly.
Julijana Gjorgjieva likes to put herself in the service of her scientific field as she wants to pass on her passion for computational neuroscience. Shortly after starting as group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, she applied for the membership in the SMARTSTART Joint Training Program Computational Neuroscience of the Bernstein Network. Here, she sees the great opportunity to inspire young scientists for this field through good mentoring and teaching. As a member of the faculty she is involved in the selection process and as an active mentor she is in direct contact with the students. Thus, she can identify talents early on and recruit talented young scientists who are passionate about the field.
Gjorgjieva considers the SMARTSTART program unique in computational neuroscience. She feels honored to play an active part in it because the quality of the applications submitted by students of various disciplines impresses her time and again. For Gjorgjieva, it is the mixture of theory and experiment and the exchange with other laboratories that characterize the program. This makes students leave their “own comfort zone”, in her eyes an essential element of academic careers.
Since September 2016 Julijana Gjorgjieva is also Professor of Computational Neuroscience at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) while remaining group leader at the MPI in Frankfurt. The scientist masters this double assignment with her typical lightness and her strong focus on what is essential. She organized her teaching in block courses so that she can make a meaningful contribution to the respective courses at both locations. In Frankfurt she supervises her Master and PhD students on site, in Munich she can count on the cooperation of a colleague. For Gjorgjieva, this is, all in all, ‘relatively easy’.
Summer Schools influenced Gjorgjieva’s personal academic career a great deal. This might be one reason why she enjoys summer school teaching, be it in Cold Spring Harbour or in Möhnesee at the IC Spring School “Me, myself, and I”. Julijana Gjorgjieva is very aware of her role as a female role model for STEM students. Here, she is also actively committed as the proportion of women in the natural sciences is an issue that lies close to her heart. Currently, she is deputy equal opportunities officer at the Max Planck Institute, a task which, as she explains with a wink, certainly affects fewer men than women, because their opportunities are not as equal as those of their male colleagues. Gjorgjieva is convinced that young women’s future careers and study choices are greatly influenced by the STEM courses on offer at high school or university level: “Young women should not be afraid to pursue such a course of study”.
This is why she is also a member of the selection committee of the “Science Ambassador Scholarship”. This STEM scholarship for women covers all tuition fees and costs for studying in the USA. Gjorgieva is thus coming full circle with one aspect of her biography as it was a scholarship she received at the age of 16 that brought her from Macedonia to the USA. For her, it was the chance of a lifetime and it laid the foundation for her later scientific career.
Published in the Bernstein Feature. 2018. Next Gen/d/eration Computational Neuroscience, pp 12-15.