An interview with Dr Marija-Magdalena Petrinovic

An interview with Dr Marija-Magdalena Petrinovic

Dr Marija-Magdalena Petrinovic is our Translational Neuroscience Champion. The NIHR Maudsley BRC Research Champions, aim to promote innovation and advancement in areas of BRC strategic priority. Dr Petrinovic is currently a Lecturer in Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London (KCL).

Please can you give us an overview of your roles? 

Within the BRC, my role is that of a Translational Neuroscience Champion. Scientists and policy makers are increasingly concerned that scientific discoveries are not translated effectively into tangible human benefit. This is mainly because of two main obstacles, or translational roadblocks. The first involves the transfer of new discoveries of disease mechanisms gained in the laboratory into the development of new methods for diagnosis, therapy, and prevention and their testing in humans. The second lies in translating clinical studies into everyday medical practices and health policies. These roadblocks can be removed only by the collaborative efforts of multiple stakeholders. Within the BRC, I work closely with other BRC members to develop BRC translational strategy by identifying opportunities for translation development, facilitating connections between different internal and external stakeholder groups and by organizing events and meetings to promote opportunities for collaboration between basic scientists and clinical researchers with access to relevant patient populations. I am currently preparing one such event.

As a Lecturer at the Department of Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Sciences, together with my team, I work on challenging behaviours that are associated with neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism. Within that role, I am also a Module Lead at two different MSc programmes (MSc in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences and MSc in Developmental Psychology and Psychopathology), and I teach neuroscience and research methods across several MSc programmes at the IoPPN.

In addition to my academic roles, I also serve as a Gender Equality Champion at the IoPPN, a departmental representative in the IoPPN Diversity and Inclusion Self-Assessment Team, a member of the IoPPN Research and Innovation Committee and as a member of the KCL Academic Board.

What is your favourite part of your BRC role?

I really enjoy working with colleagues from different BRC clusters and different research backgrounds. This provides lots of learning opportunities, as only by widening our research horizons we will be able to cross the bench-to-bedside gap and deliver the best treatments and care to patients. I like being the person who liaises between basic scientists and clinicians and who helps bring these “two worlds” closer together to enhance our translational efforts. I was very lucky to be part of translational neuroscience from the very beginning of my career, when I learnt that patient involvement is crucial for any successful translation. Patient involvement is an important part of the BRC and I really like hearing those first hand experiences as they are very helpful in steering and focusing our research efforts.

Can you give a brief overview of your career? What are you most proud of? 

My deep interest and commitment to translational neuroscience started when, as a child during the war in Croatia, I witnessed the devastating consequences of spinal cord injuries. Many of these people faced a harsh verdict from their injury and a member of my family was amongst the large number of people wounded in this way.  After realising that physicians were unable to offer much help because of the lack of knowledge as to why injured spinal neurons do not regenerate, I went on to study molecular biology at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. I then joined the lab of Professor Martin Schwab at the ETH Zürich , Switzerland, to study regeneration after spinal cord injury. It was here I worked on a molecule called Nogo-A, which is an inhibitor of regeneration and is now being tested in clinical trials. During that time, I was among the first to show that Nogo-A also plays an important role in nervous system development. By the end of my PhD, I had learned a lot about translational neuroscience, but I still lacked one important piece of knowledge – drug development. I decided to join the pharmaceutical company Roche, Switzerland, to learn how drug development and testing works, how to identify “druggable” targets and how to move compounds from preclinical to clinical phases.

After my postdoc, I returned to academia by starting my first independent post at the IoPPN. I was motivated by the opportunity to combine the research freedom of academia with my knowledge of drug development and testing, within an environment that is ideally suited for the translation of scientific findings into improving outcomes for individuals with neuropsychiatric and neurological disorders.

There are many things I am proud of because I had to overcome many obstacles during my career, but if I had to choose just one then it would be the growth of my team and students– I believe all our successes are results of our collaborative efforts.

As well as relying on teamwork, scientific research is inextricably dependent on teaching and I am also very proud of being nominated for and being awarded student-led King’s Education Awards. As, I am sure, every teacher will agree, teaching is not easy, but seeing one’s students growing scientifically, improving their knowledge and skills, and becoming independent is very rewarding. Each Christmas I get a bunch of cards from my former students from all over the world – and this is something I really appreciate. As scientists, we impact the world not just by our research, but even more by teaching and training the next generation of scientists.

How did you get interested in research?

My interest in science started in my early childhood while watching Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries and then discussing them with my dad. I still remember the excitement of seeing and learning about all those wonderful and exotic animals and how they adapt to their environments. One of my great wishes is to visit the Galápagos Islands which is the inspiration of Darwin’s theory of evolution. From this initial awe with the natural world, my interest in neuroscience was born – as all our behaviours, thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams originate in our brain.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work / life?

The current Covid-19 pandemic is having a huge effect on everyone; balancing personal life whilst developing and implementing transformative measures aimed at sustaining teaching and research activity from home was very challenging. I moved into my lab space in 2019 and our research was moving full throttle when the pandemic brought us to a standstill. During that time, my team was engaged in minimal on-campus research efforts based on what can be done whilst adhering to social distancing. In the meantime, we have been analysing previously acquired data and have prepared several papers. We are looking forward to getting back into the lab and having face-to-face meetings as Teams and Zoom lab meetings are no substitute for the spontaneous interactions that spark new ideas.

On the other hand, this pandemic has also opened new opportunities and many things that we have previously thought impossible, are now becoming normal and in some cases even a mainstay. For example, online teaching has been shown to be on a par, if not even better than face-to-face teaching, offering greater opportunities and more personalised learning experiences to our students. Although productivity for many researchers was understandably lower during the pandemic, having time to think, focus and reflect on previous practices brings higher quality outcomes and greater job satisfaction and better productivity in the long run. Few will contemplate a complete return to how we worked and operated before.

What does an average working day look like for you?

This is quite difficult to say as every day or week is different and I really like that variety about my job. In each week I need to juggle classroom and lab teaching, lab work, writing up manuscripts and funding proposals, marking students’ essays and exams, reading papers to stay on top of my field, group meetings to discuss current and future projects, alongside meetings related to the work of various boards and committees of which I am a member. This means careful time management, but there must always be some room for ad hoc changes and for meeting my students for whom my doors – virtual or otherwise - are always open.

What are you working on at the moment?

My group is working on aggression and irritability associated with neurodevelopmental conditions. Aggression and related challenging behaviours such as irritability, impulsivity and intermittent explosivity are common comorbid presentations in autism, ADHD, schizophrenia and psychopathy and they have a serious negative impact on both affected individuals and their families. These challenging behaviours often result in social isolation, caregiver burnout, removal from education-based settings and entry into the criminal justice system - yet we lack effective treatments. Given the worldwide increase in the incidence of neurodevelopmental conditions, development of effective interventions is urgently needed. However, the search for therapies is hampered by our poor understanding of causal neurobiological mechanisms.

In order to identify those neurobiological mechanisms, we are integrating both preclinical (e.g. animal models) and clinical research. Such a translational approach helps to bridge the gap between basic and clinical research and holds promise to rapidly impact upon our understanding and treatment of challenging behaviours associated with neurodevelopmental conditions.

All about you

Dr Marija-Magdalena PetrinovicFavourite  book / TV series / box set 

It is quite difficult to pick one book, as so many of them have a special meaning for me and/or have impacted my life. Since my school days I enjoy reading (and re-reading) Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Molière. During the last couple of years, I have been recommending to my friends Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett (Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity).

Unlike choosing a favourite book, deciding about my favourite TV programme is easy – Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries.

What is your go-to karaoke song?

I must admit that I give karaoke a wide berth - but it would probably be something by Barbra Streisand or Tina Turner.

How would you spend your perfect Saturday?

At a seaside – walking, swimming, and brunch with friends and family.

Best discovery of Covid-19 lockdowns?

I have discovered some wonderful local parks and coffee shops and have finally started taking guitar lessons. However, one of the most important discoveries - reminders actually - was about our resilience, adaptability and importance of science in our societies.

Tags: BRC Interview Series - Staff News -

By NIHR Maudsley BRC at 2 Jul 2021, 13:46 PM

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