It takes a village to raise a neuroscientist.
Ever since she could remember, Elma Kajtaz has been fascinated by the nervous system, its mechanics, and how these mechanics help determine an organism’s behavior. An excellent student, she studied behavioral sciences at the University of Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
To further pursue her research interests, Elma moved to the U.S. where she worked as a research assistant in the lab of renowned physiologist Charles J. Heckman, at Northwestern University. There, she studied the role of neural circuits in the mammalian spinal cord, in an effort to understand the plasticity of these circuits. Needless to say, she was hooked on neuroscience for life!
Long before the popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge, Elma helped advance the understanding of spinal cord changes associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). “The accomplishment gave me a profound sense of purpose and satisfaction that determined my life trajectory,” Elma says. “I was headed for a Ph.D. at Tech.”
At Heckman’s encouragement, Elma learned about the research of T. Richard Nichols, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and in the Walter H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering.
“I was intrigued and fascinated, so I applied to Tech to study with him,” Elma says. “From the first moment I met Dr. Nichols, I knew I needed to learn everything I could from him. His wonderful view on life, insightful scientific ideas, vast knowledge, and unmatched care for humans made him an incredible mentor. I am incredibly happy to have had a chance to work with him.”
What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
I learned the value of support and collaboration.
I completed my thesis research in Dr. Nichols’ Neurophysiology Laboratory with a multidisciplinary team of electrical engineers, medical scientists, and physical therapists.
The faculty at Tech are recognized leaders in motor control, with deep and specific expertise in proprioceptive feedback networks (Drs. Nichols and Timothy Cope) and biomechanics and motor control (Drs. Boris Prilutsky and Simon Sponberg). Their extensive database of neuromechanical data collected through decades of high-level research provided a unique reference for comparison that does not exist in any other institution. Moreover, they gladly share their knowledge, resources, and expertise!
My research would not have been possible without support and collaboration from a diverse neuroscience community in the lab and across the Tech campus. I benefited from an inclusive, supportive, and collaborative academic environment at Tech.
It, indeed, takes a village to raise a neuroscientist.
What are your proudest achievements at Georgia Tech?
I take great pride in helping students learn and develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, derive hypotheses and carry out independent research, and collaborate and communicate their ideas to others effectively.
It is not surprising that my proudest moments arise from the success of my mentees. Teaching and mentoring have been immensely rewarding and have reaffirmed my desire to be an educator of the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on you?
My advisor, Dr. Nichols, was incredibly instrumental to my success as an emerging scientist. He taught me new skills, discussed the wonders of science, and listened to all my hopes, dreams, and fears. He encouraged me to spread my wings, challenge and better myself, and form new collaborations and friendships across campus.
This encouragement led me to Dr. Joshua Weitz, when he was starting the Quantitative Biosciences (QBioS) program. Dr. Weitz taught me an invaluable lesson on how to reason quantitatively in the biosciences despite immense uncertainty, through the Foundations of Quantitative Biosciences course, which allowed me to grow as a scientist and reach a new plane of knowledge and understanding.
Dr. Weitz and my peers in the inaugural QBioS class invigorated me, animated my enthusiasm for science, and inspired new ways of thinking about my research. Their unique and diverse scientific interests, willingness to share expertise, and unwavering pursuit of knowledge, made the QBioS program so magnificent.
I am incredibly proud to have been a part of the inaugural QBioS class and to be the first graduate from the QBioS program.
What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
My dissertation defense was the culmination of my educational, personal, and emotional experiences and efforts. It is something I will remember forever.
In what ways did your time at Georgia Tech transform your life?
Georgia Tech provided an opportunity for me to develop as a neuroscientist, grow as a person, and deepen my friendships.
I’ve met incredible people at Georgia Tech and formed lifelong friendships that are remarkably supportive. I would not be the person I am, without these impactful relationships.
What unique learning activities did you undertake?
Yes, Tech does research incredibly well. But I also learned the importance of teaching and mentorship. The personal satisfaction I gain when helping someone with a new skill and watching them succeed is unmatched!
Together with applied physiology colleagues, I co-founded the student group Promoting Applied Physiology Education and Research (PAPER). We organized, led, and instructed several technical workshops and courses for students and faculty. It is incredibly fulfilling to learn that PAPER is now more alive than ever! It still brings new students together to share skills, communicate ideas, and organize outreach programs.
I also had the privilege to share my passion for science and my research findings with a broader and more diverse audience through participation at the annual Atlanta Science Festival and World Science Festival in New York.
What advice would you give to incoming graduate students at Georgia Tech?
Opportunities for personal and academic growth at Georgia Tech are enormous – a remarkable variety of classes, clubs, programs, facilities, local conferences, seminars, talks, etc. Get involved and take advantage of it all. If something you want is not available, organize it yourself.
Get involved in the greater Atlanta community. Atlanta is your home, not just the place where you study. Make it great.
Take time for yourself, find a hobby, and try new things: hiking, kayaking, swimming. Tech even has an underwater hockey club!
Make new friendships.
Where are you headed after graduation?
I will continue in the field of motor control at the University of Louisville, School of Medicine, in the laboratory of an excellent collaborator that focuses on gait impairment following spinal cord injury. Here, I will expand on the research I performed at Tech. This project has significant clinical applications and direct benefits to society. I’d like to see it succeed.