March 5, 2015

Zanic’s journey to the lab followed winding path

It’s roughly 5,000 miles from Croatia to Tennessee as the crow flies.

VUMC’s Marija Zanic, Ph.D., is studying the microtubule, a fundamental structure that makes up the cytoskeleton of the cell. (photo by Anne Rayner)

by Stephen Doster

It’s roughly 5,000 miles from Croatia to Tennessee as the crow flies.

For Marija Zanic, Ph.D., who joined Vanderbilt University’s Department of Cell and Developmental Biology as an assistant professor last August, the journey from her home country took a more circuitous route — from cell biology to theoretical physics and back again.

Zanic’s dissertation explored string cosmology, which describes the fundamental structure of the universe. Today she is an expert on the microtubule, a fundamental structure that makes up the cytoskeleton of the cell.

“Microtubules are polymers inside of cells that build a lot of different structures,” including the mitotic spindle, essential for cell division,” she explained. “They are essential for cellular motility.” They also are implicated in disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.

“Cancer cells often divide faster than regular cells,” Zanic said. “If we know how to control (microtubules), how to change their behavior and build these structures, then we can affect how cancer cells behave. If you can freeze (microtubule) action, you can stop cancer cells from dividing.”

Zanic has always been interested in science. Both of her parents had math degrees.  “I loved math, and physics was a natural,” she said. “But I have been fascinated by cell biology since high school.”

In her first year at the University of Zagreb in Croatia’s capital city, Zanic applied to both the physics and molecular cell biology programs. Physics won out, but she said her interest in cell biology never waned.

Later, while pursuing her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, Zanic audited a biophysics course and decided to switch from pure theory to experimental science. Still, physics informs her work.

“There are no direct applications between studying string theory and studying cells, but it stretched my capabilities and gave me a toolbox of (quantitative) approaches I can apply to the field of biology, which is very qualitative,” she said.

In college Zanic met her husband-to-be, Thomas, a Croatian-American who comes from a family of physicists and has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering.  He now works for a consulting company in Brentwood, Tennessee.  They have two children, Andrew, a fourth-grader at Julia Green Elementary, and Anna, a 3-year-old.

After earning her Ph.D., Zanic won a Cross-Disciplinary Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Human Frontier in Science Program to do research in biophysics at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany. The program supports young scientists who are transitioning from physical sciences to biology.

She went on to continue her research at Yale University.

Several years ago Zanic attended a Gordon Conference in New Hampshire where she met Ryoma Ohi, Ph.D., associate professor of Cell and Developmental Biology. She decided Vanderbilt was a good match for her.

Ian Macara, Ph.D., the Louise B. McGavock Professor and chair of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, agreed.

“She brings a fresh new perspective to quantitative cell biology that nicely complements our strengths within the department in the cytoskeleton and cell dynamics,” he said.

Upon her arrival, Zanic immediately began to collaborate with colleagues in the department and in the School of Engineering as well. A recent $300,000 career development award from the Human Frontier in Science Program is helping her set up her lab.

“The combination of cell biology — using the cells — and the approach I’m taking from the other side — looking at how single molecules behave and how we can build these systems in a quantitative, rigorous and controlled manner — has great potential for discovery,” Zanic said.