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From the United States to the Balkans, and back

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Winter


Life has come full circle for Goran Micevic.

As a 12-year-old in the former Yugoslavia, he was taken from his family by secret police. His offense? He had been born in the United States.

Now the M.D./Ph.D. student is back in the United States and a recipient of a 2016 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, the premier graduate school fellowship for immigrants and children of immigrants. This competitive program recognizes the accomplishments and diversity of immigrants and refugees in the U.S.

Micevic, who recently defended his dissertation, was one of 30 fellows selected for their potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture, or their academic field. He will receive up to $90,000, which he plans to use to explore advanced topics in cancer genomics, statistics, and computational biology. The grant, said Micevic, is “an inspiration to think and work harder. The fellowship community consists of some of the most inspiring minds, and unbelievably creative dream chasers I have encountered. I feel very fortunate and honored to become part of the community.”

Micevic was born in Chicago to Yugoslavian parents, both physicians who were in the United States on a research fellowship. When the fellowship was over, the family returned to Yugoslavia. Micevic grew up in a country rife with violence and political conflict.

While helping his parents in a bomb shelter’s makeshift clinic, Micevic was seized by officials who considered him a threat because he was born in the United States. He was held for weeks, then forced to enter Macedonia as a refugee; he eventually returned to Yugoslavia under a different name and reunited with his family.

“I think my journey has, in a way, been an epilogue of my parents’ immigrant story, and a fulfillment of my American dream. They came to the United States to provide a ‘normal’ life for us, but were faced with many challenges that immigrants continue to face today. They struggled with English and generally lacked resources to succeed here,” he said. “Going back to Yugoslavia in the late 1980s ended up coloring much of my early life. But those experiences and struggles eventually helped me succeed as an immigrant. That entire generation of kids growing up with hyperinflation and air raids became a bit hardier, a bit scrappier, a bit more resilient, and knew they would have to work very hard to earn their place in the world.”

Micevic found his place through science and medicine. After high school, his goal was to study in America and become a physician/scientist. A fateful encounter with an English language biochemistry textbook written by an Iowa State University professor led Micevic to the American heartland. With $500 dollars to his name, Goran arrived at Iowa State where he studied how histone modifications regulate gene expression. His work earned him a scholarship from The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program and visiting fellowships at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg and the Mayo Clinic.

When it came time for graduate school, he chose Yale, in part, because his Iowa State mentor, biochemistry professor Kristen Johansen, Ph.D. ’89, had earned her degree here.

“The Yale system is a unique self-driven learning philosophy that is well geared toward developing physician/scientists. The research thesis requirement for medical students brings a wealth of budding physicians into research labs, which often spurs interesting projects and results,” Micevic said.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship is the latest recognition for Micevic, who has also received a Research Scholar Award from the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation and grants from the American Skin Association and National Cancer Institute.

“All of the entering M.D./Ph.D. students at Yale have done outstanding work in order to be accepted into this highly competitive program,” said Marcus Bosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., Micevic’s faculty advisor and associate professor of dermatology and of pathology. “However, a select few continue to grow and develop at a rate that distinguishes them from their talented peers. Goran’s ability to take on any problem and continue to learn and grow set him apart.”

For his dissertation, Micevic studied the epigenetics of melanoma. Epigenetics—external modifications that can layer on top of DNA—control how genes express. Micevic uses mouse models and human melanoma cell lines to examine DNA methylation in melanoma. Methyl groups are tiny molecules that can tag onto DNA, modifying its function. His hypothesis is that DNA methylation might be a required step in melanomagenesis. A greater understanding of DNA methylation could contribute to new techniques for treating melanoma with immunotherapy.

“We’re still figuring out how it works and my small part is to contribute to our understanding of melanoma, to see what mechanisms of immune therapy in melanoma are,” Micevic said. “Hopefully, some of this work will translate to other cancers.”

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