How Iva Knezevic Went From Touring NYSCF’s Labs to Interning In ThemNews
For Iva Knezevic, a tour of NYSCF’s labs at age 14 sparked an interest in stem cells and a yearning to use them to better understand and treat disease.
Now a sophomore at Yale, Iva has fulfilled her dream by working with NYSCF’s Laura Andres-Martin, PhD, to study ovarian cancer as a 2022 summer intern.
We chatted with Iva about her first visit to NYSCF, what is special to her about interning here, and why she’s hopeful for the future of disease research.
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How did you first discover NYSCF?
I was a member of my school’s women in science club in high school, and my biology teacher, who had just finished her PhD at the Rockefeller University, was invited to bring us to NYSCF. I distinctly remember sitting in conference room A and looking at the whiteboards where people brainstorm. Unlike most setups, the lab was an inviting space, with big glass walls so you could see everything the scientists and robots were doing. I certainly forgot a lot of things that happened when I was in early high school, but I never forgot my visit to NYSCF.
What made you want to pursue STEM?
My dad is a doctor, and I come from a long line of doctors before him. I love biology and physics, and I actually had the chance to work in a lab for two summers in high school, and it was great to get that hands-on experience. I’ve always found that in science, people are very willing to share their knowledge with and train younger researchers: something that makes or breaks an internship experience. Even here at NYSCF, I didn’t have much experience with tissue culture, but my team taught me and eventually I was able to work in the tissue culture suite on my own, which was so exciting.
What have you been working on this summer?
I work with Dr. Laura Andres-Martin on NYSCF’s women’s reproductive cancers team. My goal is to be an obstetrician, so this was really a dream come true.
Our team essentially makes mini tumors called organoids from patients that we can use to test drugs and study disease progression. It’s a really cutting-edge step toward personalized medicine. The idea is that in a few years, this technology can be used as a tool to find the best treatments for each person’s specific cancer.
What is an accomplishment that you’re especially proud of from this summer?
One challenging part of working with organoids is that we have to passage them, which means that they are growing and will need more space and nutrients to keep expanding. When I tried passaging the first time, it took me a frustrating four hours and I essentially killed off all of my cells. Now, at the end of my internship I can passage well in an hour and a half. It really showed me that something that seems super daunting at first can be mastered if you put in the time and effort.
What was it like working on the women’s reproductive cancers team?
I’ve always had a passion for women’s health, and so does Laura. She’s the best– I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Laura is incredibly innovative and creative and being on her team is very empowering. She’s so dedicated to her work, and that’s something you really need in projects like this.
It has been really great getting to know the other interns too. There are seven of us in the lab this summer, and six of us are girls, creating a really unique lab experience. I’m used to seeing more men than women in my STEM classes at school, so to be in an environment where there are a lot of brilliant women who are super passionate about what they do has been really special.
This was my first ‘real job’, and so going in, I was a little scared, but NYSCF is an amazingly inviting place. Everyone is so happy to talk to you and everyone wants to learn from each other.There is a real sense of community. For example, I ran into Gist [the head of NYSCF’s Parkinson’s research group] on the street recently, and I asked him a question about a piece of equipment and he was happy to chat with me about it for 20 minutes [laughs]. I was like, ‘you don’t have to troubleshoot this with me right now or anything, and I’ve never talked to you before,’ but he was so enthusiastic and wanted to chat with me about it. NYSCF has really struck me as an incredible place to work because of the people here.
What is the most important thing you learned this summer?
One important lesson I always learn when working in a lab is that it isn’t always going to go exactly as planned! And things will probably take longer than expected. But the more experienced scientists have been really helpful in sharing their stories, assuring us that everyone makes mistakes, and teaching us the importance of flexibility in science.
Also, seeing such detailed and groundbreaking science up close has given me a whole new appreciation for the things I learn in school. It’s amazing how much we know, and how much we still have left to learn. Now when I read my textbooks, I actually stop and appreciate all the hard work that goes into making these discoveries, and it makes me really excited for what will come next in our understanding of biology and disease..
What is a memory that stands out to you from this summer?
I’ll never forget when we received our first tumor samples — six or seven sections of flesh in a tube. I know it sounds gross – but it was fascinating! I couldn’t believe this blob that came directly from a patient that morning could be used to save their life one day.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning on going to medical school and doing more research (maybe returning to NYSCF!). Now that I’ve spent time in the basic science part of a lab, I think my next step is to do direct work with patients and see how those worlds intertwine. I’m excited to stay involved in women’s health, because it’s definitely underfunded and under-researched. This internship really reinvigorated my passion for the field.
How has your NYSCF internship made you hopeful for the future?
Working with someone like Laura and interacting with the other scientists here makes me very hopeful for the future of science. The [NYSCF Global Stem Cell] Array® is so impressive: it’s able to make cells on a scale that is truly unbelievable. Everything project going on at NYSCF is just the beginning of something that will likely be groundbreaking.
I was telling my dad about NYSCF’s macular degeneration work, and he was fascinated because so many of his patients have AMD. Who knew stem cells could potentially give someone their sight back? Beyond that, I think the projects coming out of NYSCFin the next 10-15 years will be beyond my greatest expectations. Being in an environment like NYSCF that is overflowing with inspiration is the opportunity of a lifetime.