Janko Nikolić-Žugić

Born: November 1960 | Belgrade, YU

Janko Nikolić-Žugić was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. As a child, he found molecular biology fascinating, and decided to specialize in natural sciences for secondary school. Nikolić-Žugić realized there were no careers for molecular biologists in Yugoslavia, so decided to become a physician. He entered Belgrade University Medical School, where Miodrag L. Lukiƒá and Marija Mostarica-Stojkoviƒá encouraged him to work in the United States. Nikolić-Žugić spent summers working with Henry H. Wortis at Tufts University, which influenced his decision to leave clinical medicine and pursue a career in the United States. After finishing his doctoral degree in Yugoslavia, he took a postdoc in Michael J. Bevan's lab at the University of California, San Diego, studying intrathymic T cells, then accepted a position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0561
No. of pages: 102
Minutes: 550

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
12-14 November 1996
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Janko Nikolić-Žugić was born and raised in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, which, at the time, was a relatively open Communist country under Josip Broz Tito. His father was an orthopedic surgeon and his mother was a researcher at the Institute for Cultural Development Studies. Nikolić-Žugić was interested in science from a young age, perusing his parents' extensive library and finding issues in molecular biology and the like quite fascinating. He went to his primary school for eight years before moving into a specialization in the natural sciences in his secondary school (Yugoslavia had a Gymnasium system). At the age of fifteen or so he became a competitive volleyball player, practice for which occupied most of his nights and weekends. While all of his coursework was intense, and while he enjoyed science, Nikolić-Žugić realized that there were no careers for molecular biologists in Yugoslavia, so he decided to enter the medical track to become a physician. He entered the Belgrade University Medical School and undertook his medical studies while still having an interest in the practice and study of science more broadly. He received guidance and advice from Miodrag L. Lukić and Marija Mostarica-Stojković, who studied immunology, to do some scientific laboratory work abroad in the United States. Nikolić-Žugić took this advice and went for a few months over a few summers to work with Henry H. Wortis at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts; this was Nikolić-Žugić's first laboratory experiences and influenced his decision to leave clinical medicine and pursue a scientific career in the United States. He received a master's of science while still in Belgrade, though his studies were interrupted by the civil war, and then a doctoral degree under Lukić, during which time he completed his compulsory military service, working on T cell development. After meeting and marrying his wife, he went on to a postdoctoral position in Michael J. Bevan's lab at the University of California, San Diego studying intrathymic T cells, and then accepted a position at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he began his research on specificity in self-peptide selection by T cell receptors. Throughout the interview Nikolić-Žugić discusses his views on Yugoslavia, its culture, its educational system, its political structure, and the state of the country after the various social and political upheavals. In addition, at the end of the interview he discusses his experimental method; his wife's work as a flow cytometry operator in his lab; the science-oriented environment of his home; the necessity of animal research; and balancing family life and his career. The interview concludes with his thoughts on his own mentoring style; the way his medical training frames his research, the role of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences in his work; the "illogic" concept of gene patenting; funding and its relationship to the direction of research in the United States; publishing; and more on science and politics in the former Yugoslavia. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1984 Belgrade University Medical School MD
1989 Belgrade University Medical School MSc
1993 Belgrade University Medical School PhD

Professional Experience

Belgrade University Medical School

1984 to 1987
Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for Microbiology and Immunology
1982 to 1983
Teaching Fellow

Scripps Research Institute

1987 to 1990
Research Associate, Department of Immunology

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

1990 to 1996
Assistant Member, Immunology Program
1990 to 1996
Head, Laboratory of T Cell Development
1990 to 1996
Head, Flow Cytometry Core Facility
1996 to 1997
Associate Member, Immunology Program

New York Hospital, Cornell University Medical School

1990 to 1996
Assistant Professor, Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences
1994 to 1997
Assistant Professor, Division of Molecular Medicine
1996 to 1997
Associate Professor, Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and the Division of Molecular Medicine


Year(s) Award
1984 to 1986

Postdoctoral Fellowship, Scientific Council of the Republic of Serbia

1991 to 1995

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Grant

Table of Contents

Early Years Through Medical Education

The civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Family background. Early schooling in Yugoslavia. School authority figures. Parents' influence on career choice. Parents' educational background. Develops an interest in the natural sciences. Plays volleyball competitively. The Yugoslavian Gymnasium system. The Yugoslavian medical school system. Immunology.

Scientific Research, Medical Practice, and Moving to the United States

Early scientific training. The Communist Party in the Yugoslavian educational system. Important mentors: Marija Mostarica-Stojković and Miodrag Lukić. Internship in the Henry H. Wortis lab in Boston. Progress toward completion of M. Sc. interrupted by the civil war. Applies for postdoc positions in American labs. Graduate study with Miodrag Lukić. Research environment in Yugoslavia. Serves in the Yugoslavian army. Marriage. Wife's role as a flow cytometryoperator in lab. Science-oriented environment at home. The necessity foranimal research. Preference for the social climate of New York over that ofSouthern California. Work in the Michael J. Bevan lab on intrathymic T cells.

Faculty Years

Experimental method. The question of whether science researchers are born or made. Bevan's mentoring style. Attracting graduate students to his lab. Ways his M.D. training affects his research. Teaching responsibilities at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Discovers a specificity in self-peptide selection by T cell receptors. The reasons for doing risky science. Work on T cells funded by Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Sloan-Kettering's support of exploratory research. The politics of publishing in the sciences.

Final Thoughts

Animal research. The illogic of the concept of gene patenting. Receives a high level of institutional support at Sloan-Kettering. Philosophy of lab management. Determining the payoff of an investment in science. Publishing in the sciences. The difficulties facing the sciences in the former Yugoslavia. The political situation in the former Yugoslavia. A comparison of cultural attitudes toward doing science.


About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan