Member Spotlight is a monthly series for the ISRHML Trainee Blog designed to highlight the talent of TIGers around the world. Each month, one ISRHML trainee member will be selected and featured so we can get to know more about him or her and what he or she is doing within the field of human milk and lactation research. This month, we meet Dr. Marija Djekic-Ivankovic, PhD and pharmacist, who studied vitamin D in a joint program at the University of Belgrade, Serbia, and McGill University, Canada.
Important! Marija is currently looking for a post-doctoral (or other) research position! If you would like to work with Marija, her contact information is listed at the bottom of the article.
Dr. Marija Djekic-Ivankovic ended our interview with a story about her grandmother, a midwife in 1950s Serbia. Marija’s grandmother lived in a village, where there were few roads and no hospitals, so she delivered infants in women’s homes. Despite facing many challenges, she was proud of the fact that she successfully delivered more than 100 healthy babies over the course of her career, a fact that she attributed at least in part to her “special advice” for women. Far before the science reached Eastern Europe, this midwife told new mothers that they should breastfeed outside, because poetically, “The sun should always see new mothers and their babies.”
Unbeknownst to Marija, her grandmother was already giving women somewhat the same advice that she gives today (including to me at the beginning of the interview!): Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D! Unlike her grandmother’s observational advice, Marija’s advice stems from over a decade researching vitamin D in reproductive-aged women, one that began in pharmacology. Marija received a bachelors degree in pharmacology and biomedical sciences in 2004 from the University of Belgrade (Serbia) and continued on to obtain a masters degree in pharmaceutical sciences from the same university. Her masters degree was focused on medicinal plant science, and was completed in 2007 under the direction of Dr. Zoran Maksimovic. After one year of residency, Marija obtained a pharmacy license in 2009. At this point, Marija realized that other than pharmacology and pharmaceutical practice, her real interest was in healing with natural methods, such as nutrition. Unfortunately, nutrition science is still an emerging area of study in Eastern Europe, so studying human nutrition in Serbia was challenging at best. Fortuitously, at the same time a new department, the Department for Research in Nutrition and Metabolism, was formed within the Institute for Medical Research in Belgrade, and Marija took a position there. During her four years in this department, Marija became involved in a number of international projects funded by the European Union (such as EuroFIR, EURRECA, and BaSeFood), all dedicated to improving health throughout Europe via nutrition research. While working on these various projects, it became apparent to Marija that there was a notable lack of knowledge among Serbians about nutrition and dietary guidelines, especially with respect to women of reproductive age. Specifically, one notable observation was that almost 75% of cases of preeclampsia (a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure) in Serbia occur during the winter months.
To address some of these gaps, Marija began a PhD at the University of Belgrade under Drs. Marija Glibetic and Ljuba Mandic, focused on the vitamin D intake and status of reproductive-aged women. The first project she completed was the development and validation of a food frequency questionnaire designed to evaluate vitamin D intake, which was very successful and is still being used by more than 5,000 women throughout Serbia and the Balkan region today. This questionnaire propelled her work forward by identifying that most reproductive-aged women in Serbia were deficient or insufficient in vitamin D, which was interesting for Marija given that she had noted the increase in preeclampsia during the winter months. Marija hypothesized that this increase was due to vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency, so to test this she began a case-control study in which blood samples were collected at delivery from pregnant women (with and without preeclampsia) and their infants’ cord blood. In this study, Marija established that women with preeclampsia in Serbia were more likely to be deficient or insufficient in vitamin D, suggesting the necessity of consuming greater amounts of vitamin D-rich foods, vitamin D supplementation, or more sunshine for pregnant women. Importantly, this work paved the way for a proposed initiative for a national vitamin D food fortification program in Serbia overseen by Institute for Medical Research. At the same time, Marija received a Mary Frances Picciano Travel Award to attend a National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplement seminar series in Washington, DC. While attending this workshop, she became very interested in recently discovered metabolite of vitamin D, the c3α epimer of 25-hydroxyvitamin D, which is elevated in the blood of newborns compared to adults.
At this point in her PhD process, Marija was presented with a unique opportunity to work with Dr. Hope Weiler in the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Dr. Weiler, an expert in vitamin D, became a co-advisor for Marija’s doctoral work and encouraged her to pursue the presence of the epimer in infants and explore questions regarding its source, biological derivation, and function, all of which were unknown at the time. This subject became more complex when it was established that human milk is not a significant source of this epimer.
Together, Dr. Wieler and Marija began a study to determine health outcomes related to epimer concentrations in a growing animal model (weanling rats). From this, they concluded that high plasma concentrations of the epimer support normal growth and bone mineral accretion, at least in this animal model. This study suggested that epimer does have biological function in vivo, and explored these relationships further by looking at changes of epimer concentrations in premature infants. This small prospective study, the final project in Marija’s doctoral dissertation, included 19 prematurely born infants of low birthweight (< 1500 g) from Manitoba, Canada. Growth and vitamin D intake from all sources were recorded (expressed breast milk, fortified human milk, total parenteral nutrition and supplements). Marija was able to show that the epimer increased over the first 5 weeks of life in parallel with an increase of vitamin D intake in these infants.
Marija officially earned her PhD on October 15, 2016, and she is temporarily residing with her family in the US while she is seeking new opportunities in Canada and US. Marija is passionate about sharing new research, and as such she currently works online as a collaborative researcher on the Food-Based Solutions for Optimal Vitamin D Nutrition and Health through the Life Cycle (ODIN-VIT D) project in Europe, and as a trainer in the Network for Capacity Development in Nutrition in Central and Eastern Europe.
Marija is married to her childhood neighbor and has a four-year-old daughter, Mila, who explains that her mother’s job is “helping mothers and babies to be healthy.” Mila was named after the music notes “mi” and “la,” representing Marija’s other love: music. Self-described as a lover of dance, Marija has been an active tango dancer for more than 15 years, competitively dancing the Argentinian tango for two. As a dancer and avid traveler, she has spent much time traveling in and around Europe and North America. Marija is looking forward to her next research position and the accompanying research challenges as she is very enthusiastic to take on new projects and further explore human nutrition as it relates to health.
Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us, Marija!
We wish Marija the best of luck in the next step of her career, and look forward to more exciting vitamin D work and more healthy mothers and babies. If you are interested in Marija’s work, you can read more about her lab’s current work here, or read some of the publications for her doctoral work here and here.
If you think you may be able to collaborate with Marija or would otherwise like to contact her, you can view her LinkedIn profile or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.