The incredible journey of Goran Micevic

A fateful encounter with an Iowa State professor’s textbook changes a war-weary young man’s life.

By Steve Sullivan

Goren Micevic-029.jpg

On April 12, The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans – the premier graduate school fellowship for immigrants and children of immigrants – announced the names of their prestigious 2016 Fellowship recipients. Of the 30 names announced, one name stood out to those of us at Iowa State: Goran Micevic.

Soros Fellows are selected for their potential to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture, or their academic field and this y ear were selected from a pool o f 1,443 applicants.

The 2016 Fellows, who are all 30 or younger, come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and are all naturalized citizens, green card holders, DACA recipients, or the children of immigrants. Fellows receive up to $90,000 in funding over two years for the graduate program of their choice.

The following story about Micevic by freelance writer Steve Sullivan was originally printed in LINK, the magazine of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, in winter 2016.

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He was just 12 when they came for him.

They didn’t wear uniforms or have badges. They were armed, though, with weapons, as well as strong suspicions that this Yugoslavian boy was an enemy. His parents had spent time in the United States and he was born there. In Yugoslavia during the brutal regime of Slobodan Milosevic, being born on American soil was enough to label you a threat.

So they came for him, and they took him from his parents. They detained him and interrogated him for weeks.

Goran Micevic made it through this terrifying experience. Surviving the physical and psychological burdens of war, he said, felt like being given a second life where nothing is impossible. For Micevic, that may very well be true. This young man not only survived a war, but a fateful encounter with a biochemistry textbook led to a wealth of opportunities at Iowa State University. His success at Iowa State then took him to Yale University, where he is piling up grants as a young pioneer in the field of cancer research.

From Yugoslavia to Macedonia and back
Micevic’s parents are both doctors. In the late 1980s, concerned about the growing instability of Yugoslavia, they came to America on a research fellowship at Northwestern University in Chicago. Micevic was born in Chicago. When the fellowship was over, the family returned home.

America provided a brief respite from Yugoslavia’s problems. The country was falling apart. The late 1990s was a time of turmoil and bombs. Young Micevic split his days between school and the bomb shelter – until he was taken from his parents.

“They kept close tabs on people leaving and entering the country. My parents were on a list somewhere and I was listed as a U.S. citizen on it,” he said. “The regime feared that information was being provided to foreign governments, so they tracked people down and deported or jailed them. Because of my age, I think they were as surprised as
I was when they came for me. I never completely knew who they were.”

After weeks of captivity, Micevic was dumped at the Macedonian border. After several weeks of staying with relatives, he was able to sneak back into Yugoslavia and reunite with his parents.

“I think we probably cried for a full day,” he remembers. “It was wonderful to be back and be able to put everything behind us. Things started changing for the better after the war was over and I was able to get back to school.”

A textbook leads to Ames
Micevic was always a curious boy, with an insatiable interest in science.

“My favorite pastime would be to take something apart to see how it works,” he said. “It would drive some parents crazy to see that their child was studying a remote he had just disassembled, but my parents encouraged it.”

During the war, he would help his parents in a makeshift clinic they had set up in a community bomb shelter. He would take vitals and administer insulin shots. This instilled in him the value of medicine.

As a high school student, he knew he wanted to pursue a career as a physician researcher and would likely need to go to America to do it. His high school library had few English language textbooks, but one would change Micevic’s life.

That book was Biochemistry: The Chemical Reactions of Living Cells, by David Metzler, a now-deceased ISU professor of biochemistry. The book is highly respected in the field, but how it ended up in a high school library in Belgrade, Serbia, is anyone’s guess. Micevic devoured the nearly 2,000-page tome. For Micevic, Metzler’s book came to symbolize the laboratories and collaborative research that could await him at Iowa State.

“I couldn’t take the SAT in Serbia, so I went to Macedonia to take it. I did well enough to get admission, and soon received a letter from Iowa State welcoming me to the class of 2010,” he said.

He arrived in Ames with $500 and that insatiable curiosity and ambition. Iowa State, he said, more than lived up to the vision inspired by Metzler’s book.

“I really enjoyed my time in the biochemistry department,” he said. “It was so welcoming. Most of my years in college were spent doing research in biochemistry. Dr. Kristen Johansen was very welcoming. I never dreamed she’d think this sophomore who barely spoke English would amount to anything. She believed in me and let me tinker in her
lab. Because of these people believing in me, I was happy to continue studying and working hard.”

Welcome to the lab
Johansen uses Drosophila, a fruit fly, as a model to study the role of protein modifications in regulating gene expression. Micevic was a work study student in her lab, helping with stocking and cleanup. His interest in research was obvious, and Johansen suggested he apply for an internship that would allow him to assist in the lab. He jumped at the chance and was soon working alongside Johansen and her graduate students. This experience, he said, was instrumental in learning experimental design and basic molecular biology techniques.

The undergraduate earned one recognition after another. In 2008, he was awarded an academic exchange scholarship to study at the German Cancer Research Center in the laboratory of a scientist considered a pioneer in the use of mass spectrometry.

Johansen and Micevic developed an independent project involving the use of highly specialized techniques to identify sites of chromosomal binding in the Drosophila genome. This work provided the basis of his honors thesis and helped him land a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship in 2009. That same year he was a Mayo Clinic Summer Research Fellow.

“He just really stood out,” says Johansen of Micevic. “He has an air about him that gives you great confidence. He loves what he does and is always looking for opportunities to move his projects forward, to get the training and experience he needs. Goran is going to do work that pushes the field into whole new areas.”

Micevic graduated summa cum laude from Iowa State in 2010 with a B.S. in biochemistry. He is now enrolled in the combined M.D.-Ph.D. program at Yale University School of Medicine and is a doctoral candidate in the school’s Department of Experimental Pathology. He’s interested in tumor biology and studies mechanisms of melanoma formation and progression using genetically engineered mouse models of melanoma.

In 2014 his research earned him a Research Scholar Award from the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation and a grant from the American Skin Association. In 2015 he was awarded a National Cancer Institute training grant to study epigenetic changes in melanoma.

“To a 12-year-old boy sitting in a bomb shelter in Belgrade, this all would have been science fiction,” he said, looking back on his incredible journey. “I’m very proud what I’ve overcome to be where I am now.”

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