Vlad Ivkovic was strolling along the coastline of Omis, Croatia, when his passion for science formally — and quite literally — surfaced.
Ivkovic, who was 11 years old at the time, was hanging out with his mother and sister on a gorgeous 1988 evening. A full moon powered the sky while softly reflecting upon the water below. The air was quiet save for the occasional splashing sound of a young Ivkovic lobbing stones into the sea.
Ivkovic, with confidence in his stone-tossing game brimming, hurled a particularly large chunk of earth at the water. The rock connected with bioluminescent plankton, which, now energized, gave the Ivkovic family an unexpected lightshow.
“All of a sudden, this black water got all these weird, wonderful colors — blue, green. It started glowing. I almost just went crazy how cool that was,” Ivkovic said. “I remember doing that and then looking up into the stars. Figuring out, like, is there some alien kid out there God knows where in the universe doing the same thing? How cool would that be to see those creatures?
“At that point, I was totally hooked. I didn’t need any more hooking. But that was it.”
Since that fateful night, Ivkovic, 38, has earned a pair of master’s degrees and a Ph.D. He’s in his third year of postdoctoral research fellowships and has authored 17 peer-reviewed publications. Oh, and he’s also worked for NASA at Harvard Medical School as director of the Laboratory for Neuroimaging and Integrative Physiology for the past three years.
Ivkovic credits Webster University Vienna, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1999 with a B.A. in psychology, as his launching pad — from both an educational and career standpoint.
“As I moved through Webster, things started happening and I just couldn’t believe it,” Ivkovic said. “It was the place, the program and the people there who inspired me, and who taught me you should put the work in. As you do, there are ways to achieve even the craziest goals.”
Becoming a ‘Space Geek’
Ivkovic credits his mother, who completed her degree in biology, as the individual who instilled in him his love of science. At a very young age, Ivkovic learned from his mother about the vastness of the universe and the importance of science in bettering it.
His mother’s talks pushed young Ivkovic to begin doing some exploring on his own. He watched “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and as many films from the 1960s sci-fi craze as he could get his hands on. Science and the exploration of space became how Ivkovic defined and identified himself.
“I was totally a space geek since I was like 5 or 6 in the most literal sense,” Ivkovic said. “And then as I grew older, I realized for somebody like me from Croatia — with absolutely no space program and fairly little money being spent on science — it would be a virtually impossible thing to even consider. But then I figured — and this is a part of what Webster really allowed me to experience — if there is a will, there is a way. And you can actually make it.”
Before Ivkovic made his way to Webster, his home country, which was part of the former Yugoslavia, was hit by the war that eventually broke up the Yugoslav Federation. Ivkovic’s immediate family housed extended family members — who were living in Bosnia and on the more dangerous, occupied Croatian coastline — for a portion of the war. No one from the Ivkovic family was injured during the wartime.
“What I carry to this day is appreciation of how great life is and how great small things in life are,” Ivkovic said. “Being able to wake up in the morning and do your job, have your family, have people you love, without the fear all of that is going to change within hours or days is something wonderful.
“It’s something people generally don’t pay much attention to or are aware of — how precious everything is. Like every minute, every second of the day that is good should be appreciated for that, because it’s freaking awesome.”
From Webster to Harvard
After graduating from high school and attending college for a semester in Madrid, Ivkovic plotted his next educational move. He liked what Webster had to offer, but was unaware at the time that Eileen Collins, former NASA astronaut and U.S. Air Force colonel, was one of the university’s most distinguished alums.
Ivkovic later did discover Collins’ Webster ties, of course, which confirmed he was enrolling at the ideal school. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god. This is incredible.’ … She’s an absolute icon of human space flight,” he said.
Recently, one of Ivkovic’s projects was to be examined by a panel of former NASA astronauts. One of those panelists, as fate would have it, was Collins. In a circle-of-life moment, Collins, one of Ivkovic’s biggest role models, was examining and testing his product.
“That is an amazing feeling,” he said. “I kept thinking about where I came from and where I ended up today. It just inspired me even more.”
Upon graduating from Webster in ’99, Ivkovic collected master’s degrees from the University of Zagreb and the International Space Station in France in 2005 and ’06, respectively. He then completed his Ph.D. from the University of Houston. He’s in the midst of his third year of postdoctoral research at Harvard.
With such big-name academic institutions attached to his name, Webster stands out to Ivkovic because of the personal growth he experienced at the school and the personal attention from faculty that came along with it.
“The ratio of students to professors and the level of attention you get individually, that is very hardly possible at any of the larger schools,” Ivkovic said. “It is just not something that happens because of the practicality of how education is done these days.”
Working with NASA
Ivkovic began working for NASA three years ago in what he calls “one of the most important professional achievements of my career so far. … Every morning I wake up, I still don’t believe it myself. It’s a tremendous honor to even be given a chance to do something like this.”
Ivkovic isn’t so concerned with having an organizational giant like NASA listed on his resume. Rather, he loves working for NASA because, as he said, he “truly, viscerally” believes in the work he and the institution do.
Ivkovic talked about NASA’s mandate that the work its employees do needs to have application for human space flight, but equally so, application for improving the quality of life on earth. This NASA mission, perhaps not so well-known among the general populace, explains why Ivkovic currently works with patients in hospitals in Boston more frequently than astronauts in space simulators in Houston.
“Space flight pushes us to think outside of the box and to pack everything we’re doing in a very small box,” Ivkovic said. “And that has a tremendous amount of possible benefits for not only human space flight and explorational space, which is tremendously important for humankind, but also for daily life and how we treat our humans here on earth. This is the big picture.”
The list of projects Ivkovic has worked on is both extensive and impressive. Currently, he’s part of a team at Harvard that is investigating on-field brain movement and activity in football players to help determine the cause of head injuries in the sport. He’s analyzed the sleep physiology of astronauts living in an isolated habitat for 30 days as part of NASA’s HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog) Project.
Ivkovic collaborated with a team that helped develop and test the brain-monitoring device used in those two aforementioned projects as part of a separate project. In that, he and his NASA colleagues completed four flights that included 40 parabolas each to simulate the effect microgravity has on the brain. The near-infrared, brain-imaging device Ivkovic used during those flights produced some of the outputs as that of an MRI machine. MRI machines can take up an entire room and weigh 11 tons. The device Ivkovic used is portable and weighs 2.5 pounds.
Even with the amount of work Ivkovic does, he’s still found time to volunteer as a firefighter and rescue diver, which he said is “probably just as important to me, personally, as the science that I do.” Being able to assist people at one of their lowest points in an immediate way drew Ivkovic to what he labeled “a calling.” As he said, “once you become a firefighter, you never stop being a firefighter.”
A rescue diver. A firefighter. A NASA physiologist and neuroscientist. A Harvard researcher. With a Webster bachelor’s degree, a couple of master’s degrees and a Ph.D. for good measure. One day, maybe, if life falls into place, an academic professor and researcher, and an astronaut.
Regardless of his accomplishments past, present and future, this remains certain — Ivkovic will remain genuinely humble. Though he spends many of his days working with people who soar in the skies above, Vlad Ivkovic has both feet planted firmly on the ground.
“I don’t consider what I’m doing something extraordinary,” he said. “I really don’t. Nor do I consider myself in any way extraordinary. I just really like what I do. That’s all.”