As a young girl growing up in a small town in northern Serbia, Milica Vunjak spent more than 10 years studying ballet. During that period, when she wasn’t in school, or studying, she was dancing. Her dedication paid off when, at 14, she won second prize in a national ballet contest, the Serbian republic competition of Music and Ballet schools.
During high school, her other passion and talent pulled her along a new path. She was good at chemistry and biology, and an enthusiastic chemistry teacher encouraged her to pursue science at university
Now a senior studying biochemistry at the University of Belgrade in Serbia, Vunjak had an opportunity to pursue hands-on scientific research as part of the 2014 Amgen Scholars Program at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich, Germany.
As part of the recent expansion of the Amgen Scholars Program, LMU is now one of 17 premier educational institutions in the US, Europe, and Japan that host Amgen Scholars as they tackle independent, hands-on scientific research for eight to ten weeks. Nearly 2,500 undergraduates have participated in the Program since its inaugural summer in 2007.
For Vunjak, spending the summer in Munich conducting full-time research was “a magnificent experience,” she says. It wasn’t her first time at the bench; she had picked up some skills volunteering in a lab at her university and at a molecular biology and genetics institute in Belgrade. However, after participating in the Program, Vunjak says, “I’m now at a higher level with experience in laboratory than I was before this program.”
As part of her Amgen Scholars research, working with Professor Sonja Dames, Vunjak purified and characterized part of a protein that is essential for the survival of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the cause of most cases of tuberculosis) in a host. With more insight into the structure and behavior of this protein, scientists may eventually be able to inhibit it as a possible therapeutic strategy for tuberculosis.
Vunjak hoped to learn whether her protein latched on to cell membranes. To get an answer, she needed access to a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine — a specialized piece of equipment that costs thousands of dollars and was not accessible at her home university. At LMU, she got a few days to use an NMR machine.
“In Serbia at my university, I didn’t have an opportunity to use the machines and techniques I used here at LMU,” she says. “Here, everything is accessible.”
Not only did Vunjak use the summer to try her hand at new techniques, but she also bonded with other Amgen Scholars from all over Europe. The summer was her first time away from home for an extended period of time. A self-described homebody, Vunjak says she did not get homesick. “It was a great experience. I’ve met a lot of great people, and in two months I have gained friends I will stay in touch with,” she says.
After she graduates, Vunjak plans to pursue a master’s degree, and later a PhD, that will most likely focus on cell metabolism. “[After] the Amgen Scholars Program,” she says, “I realized how many possibilities I have.”