Today is the United Nations Day of Women and Girls in Science. We asked the inspirational Dr. Ibolja Cernak about her career in science to celebrate the day and to encourage other women and girls who are interested in science to follow their passion.
I was born to Hungarian parents in former Yugoslavia, in a city (Senta) where, even today, the Hungarian nationality accounts for 79% of population. Senta has a turbulent history: being a Hungarian city from 1216 to the end of the World War I, when it became part of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and later Yugoslavia until 1941. Then, during the World War II, Senta became again attached to Hungary until 1944, when it became part of Yugoslavia and currently Serbia. Thus, while my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and I were born in the same city, we were born in different countries: Hungary, Austria-Hungary, Hungary and Yugoslavia, respectively. The tumultuous history had taught the citizens of Senta tolerance, inclusiveness, respect and appreciation of a multi-cultural environment. Thus, I completed my primary and secondary education in Hungarian, with Serbian history, literature and grammar as additional subjects, and grew up using Hungarian, my native language, interchangeably with Serbo-Croatian, the official language of Yugoslavia, in my everyday life.
I completed my doctor of medicine degree (M.D.) at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Medicine, and soon received employment in a highly-competitive Military Medical Academy, where the majority of professional and academic staff were male. There, I completed my residency in Clinical Pathophysiology and my Ph.D. in Neuroscience.
My mother was a teacher with the deepest dedication to her students. She taught my sister and me that there is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not yearning to learn. She also taught us that learning is an ever-changing and moving process: it is continuous and often happens in unexpected circumstances. Perhaps, because of constant curiosity, thus search for explanations I earned two Masters in Science degrees that are somewhat outside of my mainstream research: M.Sci. in Biomedical Engineering I completed at the Institute for Multidisciplinary Studies of University of Belgrade in parallel with my residency, and Masters in Homeland Security in Public Health Preparedness I completed at the Pennsylvania State University 20 years after my Ph.D. degree.
Why did you become a scientist/what got you interested in TBI research?
Already as a medical student, I have been involved in basic science research studies; nevertheless, my fascination with [the] brain started much earlier. As a 13-year-old, I was hit by a drunk driver on a crosswalk, and suffered from severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). While I was fortunate to fully recover, the consequences changed my life. Namely, besides painful chronic migraines, I also noticed I got new talents – mathematics, previously my least popular subject, became my favorite one; complex problems became easy for me to comprehend; and my way of thinking started using shortcuts. Thus, I decided to find a career that provides me with opportunities to discover more about the brain and its powers, and use that knowledge to help others.
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on the mechanisms of TBI: what are the earliest changes essential for chronic neurologic deficits that develop months and years later? What are the contributing factors to impaired brain functions? Could chronic stress, nutrition, life style, emotional stability, among others, worsen the course of recovery after TBI? My research involves both experimental and clinical studies, using multi-disciplinary approach to discover subtle changes at the ultrastructural levels and link them to functional impairments all up to behavioral level.
Explosive injuries (so called “blast injuries”) are a particular focus of my research interests. Blast injuries, including blast-induced neurotrauma (BINT), are caused by blast waves generated during an explosion. BINT is a consequence of the interactions between the shock wave (blast) and the body and/or head. The transcranial (through the skull) and transcorporal (through the body) couplings usually occur in parallel. The kinetic energy transferred into the brain induces complex pathological changes through local tissue responses, autonomous nervous system (ANS) reflex mechanisms, cerebrovascular alterations, and biochemical and molecular processes. Months and years after the blast exposure(s), the functional impairments may become chronic and trigger neurodegenerative processes as well as other long-term multiorgan deficits. Since the energy of blast interacts with the entire body not only with the head in isolation, BINT is frequently accompanied by multiorgan dysfunctions such as neuroendocrine insufficiency, cardiovascular instability, dyspepsia and irritable bowel, among others. Consequently, BINT is a much more complex injury than a sports concussion or a TBI due to fall.
What do you hope your research will help achieve?
I hope that my research will contribute to better understanding of factors that make the brain more sensitive toward chronic neurologic deficits. Such a knowledge would serve as a basis for better diagnosis and open new approaches to therapeutics. Namely, if we identify the decisive factors underlying long-term complications (such as neurodegeneration and accelerated brain aging, among others) after TBI, then we would be able to prevent and/or modify them for better outcome. Moreover, we could also develop training modalities or interventions that would increase the brain’s resilience toward chronic neurological deficits in populations at risk (such as injury-prone individuals, for example).
What do you most enjoy/what is most rewarding about your job in science?
Searching for the unknown, and reaching new answers and better explanations are the most enjoyable part of research for me. Also, as soon as the answers are obtained, they open new questions – thus, the process for discovery starts again. Moreover, research is a teamwork – sharing ideas openly while fully respecting integrity and originality, and combining multiple skills and experience to achieve new knowledge is a very rewarding experience.
What would you say to young girls and women who aspire to have a career in science?
Science is based on constant search for answers and ways that lead to positive progress. It is not just a profession, it is lifestyle; thus, it requires determination and passion. Working in science enables us to be part of solutions, making life for many more enjoyable and longer, and our world healthier. If you feel you have strength and conviction, pursue your future in science: we need fresh ideas and new young researchers.
What science-related achievement are you most proud of?
When I started my research on blast injuries and BINT in 1990’s, the mainstream belief stated that brain injury due to the explosion-generated primary pressure wave (blast) is highly impossible since “the brain has an ideal nature-made helmet – the skull”. Thus, soldiers with BINT, in general, remained underdiagnosed or diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, BINT is accepted as a unique clinical entity, and there is an increasing understanding of its complexity. I would like to think that, in some part, my work contributed to this recognition, which in turn led to improved preventive measures, earlier attempts for diagnosis, and continuously improving treatments and rehabilitation.
Is there a woman working in science you admire, and why?
While many contemporary and historical female scientist earned my deepest respect and admiration for their work and tenacity, I would like to single out Trota of Salerno, who lived in the early or middle decades of 12th century. She was a highly skilled physician and a professor at Europe’s first medical school, the Schola Medica Salernitana. Founded in 9th century, the School combined the knowledge gained from Greek-Latin tradition with expertise from Arab and Jewish cultures. The approach was based on the practice and culture of prevention rather than cure. In her work, Trota paid special attention to women’s health, and her written works that survived the ravages of time describe her observations, explanations and advices – some of them applicable even today. Many of her texts were written to educate male doctors about the female body since all medical treatises at the time were written by men who had no experience in treating women and their health problems. I admire Trota, who understood the power of knowledge and applied it to improve the health and life of women. She passed her determination together with her knowledge onto her students, who – in turn – spread that expertise across the Western World.
Currently, Dr. Cernak holds a position of a Professor of Pathophysiology and Neuroscience in the Department of Biomedical Sciences of the Mercer University School of Medicine (Columbus, Georgia, USA).