Why you should care

Because Ivana Gadjanski exemplifies how science and poetry aren’t such unlikely bedfellows after all. 

Bioengineer Ivana Gadjanski’s favorite tool isn’t a centrifuge or a microscope. It’s her moleskine notebook.

The daughter of a poet, Gadjanski is a researcher and project leader at Serbia’s R&D Center for Bioengineering, where she’s developing an easier method for growing cartilage that could one day be used to treat sports injuries and arthritis. She’s also building a research infrastructure in a country suffering from severe brain drain, opening Serbia’s first-ever facility 3-D tissue printing facility, plus a low-cost workshop for artists and entrepreneurs. But whenever she finds herself stumped on a research question, her career trajectory — anything, really — Gadjanski writes a poem. She’s not just a casual scribbler but rather an award-winning poet who’s already begun penning her third volume of poetry.

Illustration of cross section of knee

Computer artwork of the rear of the knee, showing cartilage, ligaments and muscles

Source Getty

Bridging the arts and sciences is rare, but Gadjanski shows that it’s possible. She wants to see the combination of art and design added to the STEM education craze. Skeptics argue that arts instruction distracts teachers from preparing students for a market whose highest-paying jobs are in STEM fields.

Gadjanski disagrees. “Humanities and the arts are necessary in whatever you do,” she said. “Science on its own isn’t enough. Science is mainly dealing with facts, and sometimes not everything can be explained with facts. You need some leap of the imagination. You have to first imagine something and then look with scientific methods.”

The 34-year-old has a dimpled, cherubic face and a penchant for collecting teaspoons. She speaks in a lilting voice from her flat in Belgrade, recalling how she caught the poetry bug from her father, a renowned poet who counted Allen Ginsberg among his friends. “My father was the only person who really understood me,” she said.

‘My gut feeling was trying to tell me something,’ [Gadjanski] said. To decipher it, she wrote a poem.

He also nurtured her early love for science. During their summer fishing trips, Gadjanski caught frogs and wondered what made them move.

Years later, as a Ph.D. student at Georg-August University in Germany, Gadjanski studied multiple sclerosis (MS), a disorder in which the myelin tissue that insulates nerves breaks down, resulting in vision problems, difficulty swallowing and more. Earlier research had shown that excessive calcium can destroy myelin. Thanks to her experience writing visually charged poems, she could imagine the possibilities for how calcium might enter a nerve cell, visualizing it streaming in through channels. An MRI scan revealed that was exactly how calcium built up in rats with MS.

Gadjanski tested what would happen if she blocked these channels. Since some animal toxins can do just that, she tested several of them on rats. A toxin from a certain genus of fish-eating sea snail signficantly improved their symptoms.

But something didn’t feel right. “My gut feeling was trying to tell me something,” she said. To decipher it, she did what she always does when she has that urgent, nagging feeling. She wrote a poem:

Somewhere in the words
Through the pebbles
Of soft insults
Wiggles the shape
That pale body
The snake made of glass
A moment faster
Than me
I’m in the dark.

Gadjanski admits that her poems can be cryptic. But the process of writing this poem, trying to translate her thoughts, helped her realize: “I needed to change something … I had results for rats with MS but not humans.” At Columbia University, she investigated how to coax human stem cells to mature into cartilage cells using chemicals instead of pressure, which is more commonly used but can damage cells.

Gadjanski envisions taking stem cells, applying her technique and implanting the entire cartilage construct near the injury site.

But in 2007, she started to feel that tugging sensation again. She wrote about how living in hectic New York City had left “nasty scars that flatten the soul,” but “follow the veins straight to the heart” — back to her home country.

So she returned to Serbia. Her family and friends wondered why she would leave the U.S. for a country with such scarce research funding. But Gadjanski wanted to fight Serbia’s brain drain of scientists and other intellectuals.

Turns out part of fighting that battle might mean introducing new — creative — ways of thinking to the rational practice of science. Research suggests this is a game changer; Erik Dane, an associate professor of management at the Jones Graduate School of Business, led a 2011 study that discovered that people who approached problems using different thinking patterns from the one they normally used — e.g., rational-minded people relying on intuition instead — devised better solutions. People who have done that well? Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who understood more than you’d think about evolution, and James Clerk Maxwell, who developed the unifying theory of electromagnetism and also wrote poetry.

Gadjanski’s ideas are in action at what will soon be Serbia’s first Fab Lab, expected to launch in 2015. It’ll be a workshop equipped with 3-D printers, laser cutters and other equipment for any entrepreneur — not just engineers — to quickly develop their own prototypes.

Gadjanski is also establishing a 3-D tissue printing facility at the R&D Center for Bioengineering, which will use cells (perhaps including Gadjanski’s cartilage cells) and scaffolding proteins instead of ink — a significant step toward solving the organ-donor shortage. Which, says Jorge Rakela, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, “has the potential for being a very important breakthrough.”

Surprisingly, though, after all the time Gadjanski’s spent bringing her ideas about art and science to the public, the experience of sharing her poetry leaves her feeling vulnerable, she says with a laugh: “It’s like cutting out a piece of your own tissue. Maybe that’s why I went into tissue engineering. I have to make tissue parts that I give away.”


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