What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
I am broadly interested in understanding how dysregulation of developmental processes leads to congenital disease. For my PhD thesis, I am applying single cell transcriptomics to uncover how the specification and behavior of distinct cardiac progenitor populations are disrupted upon loss of a transcription factor called Hand2, and how this results in heart malformations. The most rewarding aspect of my work is that I’m constantly learning new things, whether it’s new techniques and technical skills, insights from cool papers in the field, or ways of thinking about my research project.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I came to the US for my undergraduate studies at Smith College, where research and original scholarship was really encouraged and celebrated. I worked in multiple labs both at Smith and other institutions through summer internships and realized that I really enjoyed being in the lab and making discoveries. This realization set me on the path to becoming a scientist. My interest in stem cell research was piqued after I saw a TIME Magazine article about Dr. Doug Melton’s work with stem cells in his quest to cure diabetes. I wanted to learn more, so I enrolled in a seminar on stem cell biology at Smith and became fascinated by the biology of these cells and their therapeutic promise.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
The most exciting aspect of my work is that it has the potential to help us understand, prevent and inform strategies to treat disease.
I also think that it’s a really exciting time to be in science as there has been an explosion in single cell analysis technologies that are allowing us to revisit longstanding questions and have the capacity to revolutionize our understanding of stem cell biology.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
Dr. Doug Melton from the TIME article.
The above-mentioned seminar was taught by Dr. Michael Barresi who gave me a great appreciation for stem cell biology and encouraged me to pursue a career in research.
How do you spend your free time?
I like to cook and test out new recipes – my kitchen is my lab away from lab, just with a much higher experimental success rate. I also love to dance – I do Zumba several times a week to unwind and get moving.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I have always been called Yvanka, but many people don’t know that it is my middle name. My first name is Tarja, which I never use.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
I always look forward to the annual ISSCR meeting. It’s a wonderful opportunity to network with members of the stem cell community, learn about the amazing science being done to move the field forward and catch up with old friends. My favorite part about the annual meeting is the junior investigator’s social night – It’s great to make new friends at this event and get to know them throughout the rest of the conference. I also really value the professional development resources that I have access to as an ISSCR member; as I am deciding on the next stage of my career, I have gleaned valuable insights from the career development videos on the ISSCR website and the career panel events hosted by the JIC at the annual meeting.