by Kristie Garza
Dr. Tanja Jovanovic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. Her research interests focus on the interaction between neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, and genetics in traumatized populations. She is the Director of the Grady Trauma Project and also a Co-Investigator in the Human Psychophysiology of Emotion Laboratory at Emory University.
I wanted to start this interview with one of Tanja’s favorite quotes: “Don’t become a mere reporter of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin” by Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist mostly recognized for his work in classical conditioning. Pavlov is also the name of Tanja’s cute collie….stay tuned!
How did you become interested in science and what steps did you take to pursue that interest when you were younger?
I first wanted to be a scientist when I was six or seven years old watching nature shows. I wanted to be the guy in the savanna who watches the animals. Then, as I got older, I decided that life in the savanna was boring most of the time, and, instead, I was going to be the zoologist at the zoo.
Early on, I really wanted to know about vocal communication in animals. Because I was a big animal lover, we would just collect animals, my brother and I. Somebody from the immunological society in Croatia gave me a pregnant mouse. This turned into 20-30 mice very quickly. So, we built this big glass mouse hotel that had little rooms where they could roam around.
Konrad Lorenz was my big hero, and he got me thinking about vocal imprinting. So, I got little guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are precocious, so as soon as they are born they run around and vocalize immediately. I wanted to see if you could force them not to. I made these little sound proof chambers, and I would put the little baby guinea pigs in as soon as they were born. I would feed them, and it was great because they imprinted on me. I mean, they wanted to be around me all the time. It was so super cute!
The experiment I did was to switch chinchilla babies and guinea pig babies because chinchilla babies are also precocial species. The tricky part there is that chinchilla gestation is twice as long as guinea pig gestation period. So, I had to breed my guinea pigs after my chinchilla was already pregnant. How old were you at this point? I was about 15 or 16. How did you know the gestation period of a chinchilla? Well, I read about it, she says nonchalantly. A chinchilla was hard to get in Croatia. So, my brother and I took a train to Slovenia to a big expo type thing for chinchillas and rabbits. I had found someone who had a female chinchilla. The downshot to all of this is that the chinchilla never had babies. So, either he tricked me and didn’t really sell me a pregnant chinchilla or she could have maybe not gotten pregnant after he bred her.
Then, when I started as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Christian, Regina Sullivan was at the University of Oklahoma. She was doing olfactory imprinting. So, I tried to mimic everything she did. There is no graduate school [at Oklahoma Christian], but I had professors who would give me keys to a lab. I would buy mice and guinea pigs at the pet store, and I would feed them and take care of them. I built a little odor preference chamber. It was a radial arm maze that I made out of, probably milk cartons, and I would just use a stopwatch to measure how quickly they went into each arm. That was officially my very first publication. It was this tiny tiny magazine that published this little experiment. I was just beyond myself that I wrote this paper. Today, I frequently talk to Regina and she is very supportive of my research, so I feel I have come full circle.
When new graduate students join the lab, one of the first things you say is that you would support a decision to have children in graduate school. This is really a progressive perspective, and you seem to generally emphasize work-life balance. Can you tell me more about this?
I think that to be really satisfied and fulfilled with what you are doing, you really do have to have things that are important to you outside of work. That will make you a more productive scientist because you will be more satisfied with your life.
Specifically talking about family issues, this is something I feel very strongly about, probably because I think we are still not there- where it is considered acceptable to dedicate enough time to your family. There is a lot of lip service paid to that without people really truly believing that you can, in fact, be a dedicated, outstanding scientist AND be a dedicated outstanding parent. I think the danger with women is that there is an assumption that, if you get into a position where you have to choose between parenting and science, you will choose parenting. I think there is a concern that you are not going to seem serious or committed to your career development. So, the side effect of that is it is hard for women to discuss family issues with senior advisors or mentors.
It was very hard for me to tell my mentor that I was pregnant, and it was REALLY hard for me to tell him that I was pregnant AGAIN. The first one could just be a hobby but the second one- now this was really going to suck up a lot of my time. So, what I have learned is that you can do it well, you just have to be organized about it. I don’t think everyone needs to have children. I don’t think it is a key to success or anything like that, but I think a lot of people do want to but feel like they have to compromise or postpone it. It is important to communicate that you don’t have to and that it is perfectly doable. I like to talk about that. It’s a very hard conversation to begin from the student’s perspective, so I just like to open that door so that people feel comfortable when they have that conversation.
This applies to general work life balance issues. I don’t expect people to be in the lab 24/7. Unless I have a deadline, I don’t work that much on weekends. Most of my weekends are family time and me time, and I don’t feel guilty about that. Science is such a hard endeavor. You are going to get rejected so many times, you have to have an underlying joy in what you do to persevere through that. I think that [not having a joy for your work] is a bigger danger of people dropping out of science than having a family.
What would you be doing if you were not an academic researcher?
I wanted to be a dog breeder, but that was always planned to be my hobby on the side. I thought I could still do it when I got Tesla, but she turned out to not be full breed. Tesla’s mom had an affair with someone in the forest. I had never had a collie before, so I kept thinking, the gene expression for the long head- when does that happen? Tesla just never got it. When she was 10 months old, the breeder called me and told me they had found out she was actually only 50% collie. Then, they said I could get the pick of the litter for the next one. Pavlov was tested, and I have all his genetic paperwork. He is full collie. But I will probably neuter him. If I got a third one and I bred them then there would be puppies and chaos! So, I’ve decided that this will be part of my retirement plan.
What would be a place you would go for the weekend, a place you’d go for a week, and a place you’d go for a month?
For a weekend, I like busy bustling things that I couldn’t do for longer than 72 hours. So, like Manhattan is really good for these short bursts of these dynamic, stimulating events that would be exhausting if you were there for too long. But for short-term, it is a tremendously energizing place to be and absorb the energy. For a week, I would do, maybe, Napa Valley. I’d like to do a tour of vineyards or something like that. In my mind, if I had a month, I think I would read a book for three days, and then write something, like a mini-sabbatical. I would probably write an opinion piece about science. I would like to have a sequestered sort of place – very tropical and relatively remote. It would have to be a month, not any longer. It’s all I could do of being by myself in an isolated destination. So, for that I would do Greece or the Caribbean, somewhere warm and nice where I could just be in flip-flops all day near the water.
If you could send a note to your former graduate school self, what would it say?
I had lots of times in grad school where I didn’t know what I was going to do- lots and lots of times! My advisor was very hands-off, and he wanted his students to work independently. Unless I had something to meet about, my advisor and I would not meet and if I wasn’t working, I didn’t have anything to talk about, so it was a vicious cycle of nothing getting done. I watched a whole lot of TV in that year!
I think the world of him, but I think I would have intervened earlier with myself. For a long time, I didn’t know what I was going to do for my dissertation, even though now it seems like I was meant to do cross fostering in monkeys all along. I think my message would be, even when you think you are being unproductive and spinning your wheels and doing nothing, you are still on the right trajectory. Uh, can we put this on our quote wall? Tanja giggles.
Where do you see the lab in ten years, and if you had unlimited funding, what experiment would you do?
As you know, my absolute love is developmental research. So what I really want on the developmental side is to have this longitudinal program where we start following women during gestation and we have information on this child from conception essentially to birth, to early development, pubertal development, and adolescence. In ten years we can be well on our way to having this longitudinal cohort. I like the idea of sensitive periods and critical windows for intervention. What I would really like to do also is start thinking about innovative interventions. I don’t really like most of our interventions. I don’t like psychotherapy as an intervention. I don’t like the idea of a kid taking a pill for the rest of his life. I would like to train the brain to be more effective and efficient and heal itself. I would develop really high tech innovative interventions that you can do while watching changes in the brain. I would actually have them in the scanner so we can see what is being activated and doing this at different ages. That is the ultimate goal- some kind of prevention- but knowing when and what is still where we are right now.
You were born abroad; can you tell us more about your early life?
This is a very interesting story in that I think about my grandparents. They [paternal grandparents] were from a very small rural place in Georgia, very strict southern Baptists. They had a son who goes off to Georgia Tech. He wanted to be a chemical engineer. He was 20 years old and decided he wanted to do an internship abroad. So, he went to Yugoslavia and worked at an oil refinery, and, being a southern Baptist, he found the only Baptist church there. So, he met my mother there. At the end of the 6-month study abroad from Georgia Tech, he was married and he had decided he was going to quit school and become a missionary. I just think how they [her paternal grandparents] must have gone nuts!
My dad wanted to go into the mission field. So, they [her mother and father] went to a theological seminary in Switzerland. My brother and I were born there. Then, when I was five, we moved to the states. My dad went to a seminary in Louisville and got a PhD in theology. Then, my parents were appointed to go back to Yugoslavia as missionaries, so we went back.
Growing up in a communist country was normal for me then. Now, in hindsight, it seems weird. For example, there was an induction ceremony into the communist party when you were 7, when you get your red star. It was indoctrination. So, when you look at it now it seems a bit shocking, but back then it was a thing to celebrate, “Yay, you’re now part of the communist party.”
Although Yugoslavia was politically atheist, my family was very religious. My upbringing was that there is only one way to live. There was only God’s way and no other way, so never stray from this path; there was a fear of veering off. It took me a long time to realize that that is not really true. If there is a man-made GPS navigation system that could redirect you if you make a wrong turn, then any spiritual being that you would believe in should be able to do the same. I now think there are many different ways to get to the same place in life. So, never be afraid of making the wrong turn. So, even if you are standing there deliberating, you’ll come back to the right place. You can always correct back. You can spend an entire year watching TV and still be okay!