Thank You For Being Such A Vital Part Of Our Team, Merjem. We Look Forward To Sharing More About You So Others Can Get To Know You Better!
Tell us a bit about your backstory and what lead you down your current life path.
I am a biomedical engineering PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. Before Michigan, I attended Illinois Tech in Chicago where I also studied biomedical engineering and where my interest in research bloomed. I grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina where I attended an IB school. My family’s history is an important factor in where I am now. My parents were refugees of the Balkan wars and were immigrants in Germany and the US. The largest lesson I got from my parents and their difficult and unstable life is that partnership/friendship and education are things that we can hold on to and rely on even in the most difficult times. The lesson I got from their life path has had a large impact on how I prioritize my time and effort.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career, Merjem?
Throughout my undergraduate degree, I was inspired primarily by my family and the future life I imagined for myself after receiving the degree. As a rising biomedical engineer, I was inspired by the prospect that my designs would be used throughout the world and helping patients, nurses and doctors. However, as I better understood the job market, I found out that the future life I imagined for myself was not reality. A moment during my senior year I felt so betrayed by the system, where I learned that we glamorize the term engineer, expecting to be creative and problem solvers and fully flexing all the skills we learned, but in reality, I was likely to have a much less exciting job for a long time. I realized I had to pursue a higher degree to have my dream job, which is what I am doing right now. Hopefully the future life I imagined after my PhD will be a reality, there are no higher degrees to pursue… 🙂
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am particularly grateful to my parents for “letting me go” and having faith in me and trusting me to be responsible and a good student. Going through the motions of moving from Bosnia to the US, as an 18-year old, I was starry-eyed, naive, and excited, but as I’ve grown older, I now understand the courage my parents had to have to let me go. All of my success is because of their courage, as I know I would not have had any of the opportunities nor successes without attending university in the US. They supported me throughout my education, reaffirmed my decisions and kept me from quitting when I was ready to do so. I fully attribute my success to them.
Additionally, I was very lucky to have supportive mentors. My boss at my first job, Nasir Mirza, was there to lift my spirits and remind me of my purpose in difficult times, as well as nominated me for an award I didn’t even know existed. That was the first award I ever got and was reaffirmation of my effort and a sign that others believed in me. My academic mentors have also had a huge impact on my career. Dr. Papavasiliou is still my model of a successful working woman in academia, and Dr. Kohn has supported me through all the throws of grad school life.
What do you enjoy most about teaching/tutoring, Merjem?
I LOVE seeing the glow in my students’ eyes who finally get a concept we work on. The moment things “click” after minutes/hours of frustration is such a satisfying moment that makes any tutoring session worthwhile. As an introspective person myself, I urge students to look back at the beginning of the semester or our time together to notice how much they have grown.
While tutoring with Samaritas, an organization that supports refugee youth, I have worked with students who had limited access to technology or are in ESL classes. Although our work was maybe focused on their Algebra class, we both get to look back and giggle at the tech struggles or miscommunications we had at the beginning. In those moments I get to look back at my growth as well, from being equally lost in a completely new educational system to pursuing the highest degree here at the University of Michigan. I feel so excited about what my students may one day achieve.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Before the pandemic, I used to Latin dance 2-4 times a week. Our teacher, Laura from Dance Revolution, has built a fun and supportive dance community in Ann Arbor, where we dance salsa, bachata, merengue, and other Latin dances. It used to be the perfect creative and active outlet after a day hunched over a lab bench. Now, I focused a lot of time on learning about minimal waste lifestyles and making tweaks in my life to make it more eco-friendly. By the time this interview is published, I’ll be a mom of about 200 worms which will help decompose my food scraps 🙂
Tell about an amazing trip you took. Where did you go and what did you enjoy most?
In March 2020 I did a road trip through central Europe with my parents. We met in Vienna, drove through Austria and made a longer stop in Salzburg, and went up to Prague. This was the first time I saw my parents in two years, so just seeing them was amazing. But I was struck most by Salzburg, which is the birthplace of Mozart, who I obsessed about as a young pianist. In the Mozart Museum, they had a piece of sheet music he wrote with his own hands and that was a piece I used to play when I was younger. At that moment, I felt connected to history, it is a memory I will cherish for a long time. I also made it a challenge for myself where I will avoid using English while in Austria, so I had to freshen up my German before the trips. What was funny was that I had to use it very little because I somehow ended up using my native language, Bosnian, and Spanish way more than I expected. Europe is so much more culturally diverse than is portrayed in the US!
Is there something exciting you are working on now? What is it and why did you choose to start it?
This is a side project, but definitely relevant for the time… Together with the Federation of American Scientists and the National Science Policy Network I have been volunteering as a scientist for the Ask a Scientist website, where we help laypeople with their questions about Covid-19. Now that we have been active for about a year, we formed a team of scientists who are trying to understand the correlation between the public’s concerns and communication from scientists/science authorities and media.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? What is it and why did it resonate with you?
My best friend gifted me Educated by Tara Westover. It is a memoir where the author described her departure from her conservative Mormon upbringing, and how she was able to break from the claws of a culture where unhealthy behavior is ignored and supported for religious reasons while her pursuit of knowledge and truth made her a target within her family. I was touched by her struggles and identified with some of the subtler ones. This book reminded me of my blessing, my supportive family, but also gave me an opportunity to evaluate if I have any claws of any kind that are holding me back and keeping me from living my life authentically and being happier and more fulfilled.
The road to success is difficult and requires tremendous dedication. What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Take a break. For three reasons. To smell the roses and enjoy life, to recharge, and to remember your “whys.” Work is slow, repetitive and tiring, you forget about the small wins, small progress and why things are done. This also allows for flexibility and evaluation of whether what you are doing is actually making you happy and making a difference.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?
As a woman in STEM, and from Bosnia, where gender norms are still very prevalent, I have personally seen how a community that supports women could thrive, and one which limits women misses out. In some places, we still struggle with mindsets that women are less capable, but in others, we find the struggles of women (often caused by those mindsets) as cumbersome. These things are often internalized, I still struggle with this myself. However, when the paradigm is flipped, where “women issues” are considered human issues, I believe we can see not just growth/improvement for women but for the community as a whole. There also needs to be a shift in mindset, not just community. Although with every graduating class, the gender gap is narrowing, we still have male-centric mindsets in science, medicine, and bioengineering – we still primarily do experiments on male mice for example (not to talk about more serious trials and experiments) and we often just assume that women = men – those pesky hormones. If I could inspire a movement, I would help flip the script and push for the understanding that the wealth, success, and happiness we would all have if women were supported in education, childcare, (mental) health and understood, scientifically.