Grand Challenges Scholar

Ena Haseljic ‘22 is ready for her next grand challenge

February 27, 2022

Ena Haseljic in the iGEM wetlab
Participation in the iGEM project is one of many hands-on research experiences that Ena Haseljic has taken advantage of at the University of Rochester.

Her goal is to improve diagnosis, treatment of neurodegenerative diseases 

Class year: 2022
Majors: Molecular Genetics, Psychology
Challenge: Engineering Better Medicines

"Research is like a puzzle to me,” says Ena Haseljic ’22, who is majoring in molecular genetics and psychology at the University of Rochester. “That’s why I became interested in doing research; being able to ask questions and solve puzzles.”

She could not have come to a better place to do that.

Ena Haseljic portraitHaseljic, who is from Gradacac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has honed her research skills in the labs of two internationally recognized scientists: Maiken Nedergaard, who discovered the brain’s glymphatic waste system, and Vera Gorbunova, whose research with long-lived naked mole rats and bonehead whales has provided new insights into the aging process, DNA repair, and cancer.

In addition, Haseljic helped the University’s award-winning iGEM team develop a noninvasive, point of care device to detect sepsis from a person’s sweat. The project introduced her to a whole new set of skills for her toolbox.

“This project was a lot about getting out of my comfort zone, and learning about economic value, engineering, quality and practice, and how to make a device that is most optimized for users,” says Haseljic, who served as hardware manager for the 12-member undergraduate team. (See her poster here.)

This in turn qualified Haseljic as a Grand Challenges Scholar. The University program recognizes students who tackle one of one of 14 “grand challenges” of the 21st century identified by the National Academy of Engineering. The students must demonstrate competence in research, entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary studies, global experience, and service. Haseljic met the requirements for the challenge of Engineering Better Medicines. 

Rochester’s flexible curriculum, inclusive campus appealed to her

Haseljic, a first-generation college student, first became interested in science in high school. “I was really interested in asking questions and learning about the human body,” she says. Initially she dreamed of becoming a medical doctor.

That changed when she attended the United World College at Mostar. “For the first time I learned about genetics,” she says. Haseljic was especially intrigued by studies showing that people with sickle cell anemia are protected from malaria.

She also learned about the University of Rochester. “The flexible curriculum at Rochester was really interesting to me. I liked the idea of not being saddled taking courses that weren’t really interesting to me,” says Haseljic, who is also pursuing a minor in German. “Also, the financial aid is great; it’s a really inclusive campus; and it seemed like a really great environment for anyone.

“I have never regretted my decision to come here,” she adds. “I have never felt out of place. I’ve made really good friends here. The Medical Center is really close, so I’ve been able to have classes and work in labs there. This has been a great four years for me.”

Haseljic receives a President's Award from University President Sarah Mangelsdorf.

Haseljic receives a President's Award--the University's highest award for undergraduate research--from University of Rochester President Sarah Mangelsdorf at the 2022 Undergraduate Research Exposition. Haseljic gave a presentation on Manufacturing a Sleeve-Like Microfluidic Biosensor to Diagnose Sepsis Using Biomarkers in Sweat. (Photo by J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester)

Ample opportunities for hands-on research

Among the many campus activities she has participated in, Haseljic especially enjoys working at the University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). She tutors student in the natural sciences, “going over the material with them, and making learning personalized for every student that I work with.”

She has also tutored students in German and serves as a study group leader for Neural Foundations of Behavior, a class taught by Kevin Davis, an associate professor of instruction in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“He probably the most motivated person I know,” Haseljic says. “He is always so passionate about teaching and working with students.” Other important mentors for Haseljic, in addition to Gorbunova, have included Sina Ghaemmaghami, Anne Meyer (iGEM PI and advisor), and Elaine Sia, all faculty members in the Department of Biology.

Haseljic also worked closely with Rashad Hussain, research assistant professor in the Nedergaard lab, as part of a project investigating the effect of traumatic brain injury on the blood-brain barrier and how different drugs might restore functionality after injury.

Her projects in the Gorbunova and Seluanov lab have included an independent study of levels of PARP1, an enzyme that stimulates DNA repair in human and bowhead whale cells. She is also conducting a project on the extracellular activities of three enzymes that might be the main mechanism of combating oxidative stress in the whales, thereby contributing to their long lifespans and cancer resistance.

For the iGEM team, Haseljic served as hardware manager, which required her to learn about building circuits “from scratch,” she says. She emailed faculty members from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering for their advice and learned a lot on her own. She also contributed to the wet lab, modeling, collaboration, and video production aspects of the project.

Perhaps more than any other experience, iGEM has influenced Haseljic’s career plans.

“I knew I was interested in advancing medicine and improving health,” she says. The iGEM experience showed her how “point of care devices can help many people of different social and economic backgrounds. So, I am now more interested in getting into a field to design more devices that can efficiently diagnose different diseases.”

Next step: PhD to learn more about molecular pathways of disease

Haseljic plans to pursue a PhD in genetics or molecular biology, focusing on the molecular pathways that lead to disease. “This way I will be able to understand how different diagnostic and therapeutic tools can be used to treat disease,” she says.

Eventually, her goal is work in the biotech industry or academia, helping to design those tools.

“When I started with iGEM, we were in the process of brainstorming and deciding what project we should do,” Haseljic says. “My idea was an efficient way to diagnose multiple sclerosis.”

MS is a disabling brain and spinal cord disorder in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between the brain and the rest of your body. Symptoms vary widely. There is no cure, but treatments are available to speed recovery from attacks, modify the course of the disease and manage symptoms—if it is diagnosed in time.

The problem is that “there are so many factors that affect it’s onset,” Haseljic says. “My goal is to use current technologies and invent new techniques to improve the diagnosis and treatment of multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases.”

See Haseljic's poster  describing how she fulfilled the GCS competencies.