Dr Miodrag Stojković learned from his grandfather, Vlajko Đonić, the maxim that leads him through life: it doesn’t matter how much we create, but how much we leave behind. Today, at the age of 54, he has created and left enough to make his grandfather proud, and everyone who evaluates his work. He is a respected and recognised geneticist, and a pioneer in many scientific disciplines, including the isolation, growth and differentiation of stem cells.
Following a successful career in Europe, Stojković returned to Serbia around ten years ago and opened the Special Hospital for the Treatment of Sterility in Leskovac.
“However, basketball was and has remained my great love. As a kid, I wanted to be like Kićanović. I had a talent for that sport, but not enough to dedicate myself to it fully. It seems to me that I’ve realistically evaluated my own talents since childhood, which is how I know that I’d never been a good clarinet player, despite how much I loved playing that instrument.
There is no word, trophy, medal, diploma or anything that could describe or replace the feeling when you take a child in your arms who is a winner in the fight against sterility
When someone works as much a CorD’s interlocutor, it’s tough to imagine when he has spare time to devote to books, but good literature is an indispensable part of his life:
“As a child, I loved books that could teach me something. Not in the sense of textbook literature, rather books that describe some significant personalities and their accomplishments. As a youngster, I fell in love with the writing of Elias Canetti, and he is still among my favourite writers today. In recent years I’ve been strongly attracted to biographical books, regardless of who wrote them.”
However, his first love, which was, in fact, love at first sight, through a microscope, was biology. The responsibility for this belongs to his head of form and biology teacher Jovan Miljković:
“In his classes, we were able with unbridled curiosity to observe and discuss how the micro-universe of the cell looks under the microscope, what it is created from and through which mechanisms it works, so that we could then use classes to write papers on popular groups like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, and to listen to their records. I now know that among all of us and to our good fortune, our teacher Jovan was the biggest child. The introduction to stereo-magnifying glasses and microscopes, on the other hand, to my good fortune, left such an indelible mark on me that I continued to seek it later, during secondary school and my university studies.”
When he graduated from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Belgrade, Stojković returned to Leskovac and found employment at the Zdravlje pharmaceutical factory as a trainee researcher. This once powerful factory was then on the brink of collapse. The 1990s came, and with the crises and the rumblings of war, while his dreams of research work continued to grow. He left for Germany:
“The path to becoming a researcher was long, lasting almost three years. I initially worked in Hamburg and Munich as a medical technician, after working hours, either outpatient care or work in a nursing home. At that time wherever you appeared, the question was posed whether you were a Serb. As disturbing as that was, it was also simultaneously an incentive, providing extra energy and perseverance, as some kind of positive stubbornness. That helped in those first, toughest years of adapting, learning and attending language school, and later additional studies, doctoral work, all at the same time… Well, that’s positive there; there’s no timewasting, on the contrary, it pays off on all sides, which is why not long passed before nobody asked me where I came from, but rather what I had already achieved and what I’m capable of doing.”
Leskovac has long been known for its good cuisine, but as of recently it’s also known for SPEBO MEDICAL. People come to us from all over the world – we were recently visited by one Serbian couple who lives and works in America and who started their fight against sterility there
It was in Munich that he met his future wife, Petra. Their paths then led them on to the UK and Spain, only for them now to be working together in Leskovac. They are always together, just like any winning team: “Petra, as a scientific worker and a worker in laboratories, is adorned with the characteristics of someone on whom you can always depend, without worrying about the outcome. What we do together is a significant part of my success, because without her help I wouldn’t be where I am. Without her great understanding, we wouldn’t have endured all those troubles and misfortunes encountered on our way to the opening of the Special Hospital in Leskovac. I’m sure she knows how important that is to me because it’s about my country, which is increasingly also becoming hers.”
While undertaking doctoral studies, Miodrag was once turned back from the Austrian- Hungarian border. Together with his young wife and a little daughter, they were placed in a police van, driven to no man’s land and told to go back home. The mother and child returned to Belgrade, while Miodrag succeeded in reaching Hamburg. It was then that he understood the essence of the saying: a Serb who doesn’t find a gap in a barrier isn’t a Serb:
“Later, as a scientific research associate at Ludwig-Maximilian University, I again had to extend my work visa; my then-boss, Professor Wolf, received a letter from the department for foreigners asking if he could actually employ a German or if it must be foreigner, to which responded that it must be Stojković, as there is no better German or anyone else. Again, this is proof that all that’s only important it that you are diligent and persistent, if you are at least capable, someone will recognise and can appreciate that.”
One could say that there was no obstacle on the scientific-research path that he did not overcome. From Germany he continued his work in the UK, after which he relocated to Spain, where he gained the position of Deputy Chief Director of a large and very important scientific centre with an annual budget of €20 million, his own laboratory, a large group of talented young scientists, equipment, the dream of dreams for every scientist – to have everything under one roof:
“Somewhere around that same time, I received the title of an honorary citizen of the City of Leskovac and the possibility to open a special hospital for the treatment of sterility, the first located to the south of Belgrade. I was initially moving between Valencia and Leskovac, and then I realised everything that had accumulated for years – nostalgia, longing for the family, a desire to do something for the country that educated me and that needs help in the form of recovery and the promotion of science, the increasing presence of the brain drain, a promise that we would manage to build a new scientific research centre alongside the hospital, the desire to create and leave behind something for those emerging not to have to leave the country… these were all factors that compelled me to return. Unfortunately, we waited three years for the special hospital to open, and we’ve been waiting ten years for the centre, and who knows how much more we’ll wait… The special hospital has patients from all over the world, and I’m no longer sure what needs to be done and proven, for success does not come by itself but is a reflection of work and its quality. Perhaps success in one’s own country is actually the greatest failure, I have no other explanation.”
My wife Petra is proof that behind the success of a man usually stands a woman who has subordinated herself to the realisation of his plans, who is able to postpone – and, if necessary, renounce – her own
The working life of this scientist unfolds between the Special Hospital for the Treatment of Sterility in Leskovac and the Faculty of Medical Sciences in Kragujevac. He used to go abroad regularly for work or to lecture. There were days when he rushed from a lecture in Philadelphia to give his next lecture in Seoul, but as the years have passed he has found life increasingly beautiful in a small settlement near Leskovac called Vučje. Vučje is rich in nature, with a mountain and a river, and there he spends every free minute writing. Two years ago, he published the novel Crničani (published by Vukotić Media, Belgrade), which is an extraordinary story about his family, the title of which refers to a village in the far south of Macedonia, where his grandfather lived at the beginning of the story:
“I always wondered how come that Macedonian village where my grandfather lived, just five kilometres from the Greek border, was inhabited almost exclusively by Serbs. And in the village opposite, and then in another village, and another… I knew that some of these people had come from Kriva Feja or Radan Mountain, but without details. When those dear people began to leave this world one by one, I noticed that there were so many identical surnames in the graveyard.
“I absorbed my grandfather’s stories and wasn’t even aware of how much they meant to me until I started writing the book. Because of his political orientation, my grandfather was arrested after World War II. He was a member of the Royal Guard, and he kept a picture of King Alexander in the house. However, due to his great care for the family, the painful life of a villager without a day off, my grandfather was for me the best and greatest example in life. In the book, I depicted a real event when I dreamt that my grandfather called me to come and forgive him. I headed off and managed to see him, but in real life he died that morning after my dream.” This scientist is now writing a second book.
Asked how his German wife, Petra, finds life in the south of Serbia, Miodrag says:
“Petra is proof that behind the success of a man usually stands a woman who has subordinated herself to the realisation of his plans, who is able to postpone – and, if necessary, renounce – her own plans. We are at the hospital every day. As a top embryologist, she runs the laboratory and takes care of many segments of the work of the special hospital, sparing me of an obligation that I was not born to handle, and in that I mean administration. She has perfectly mastered our language, in the Leskovac way – as my folks would say – which is how she is capable of doing battle with a local tradesman. Anyone who succeeds in that has passed the main test of adaptation in Serbia!”
For this scientist and man who, unfortunately, has no offspring of his own, his greatest joy today is the almost 800 babies whose lives started at the Special Hospital, which means more to him than any award:
“There is no word, trophy, medal, diploma or anything that could describe or replace the feeling when you take a child in your arms who is a winner in the fight against sterility, perhaps as a blend of the joy and hope that’s only provided by new life. After ten years of successful work, I can say with satisfaction that the purpose of creating a hospital for the treatment of sterility has been fulfilled, with the hope that it will be taken over in a few years by young people and will continue the very important task that it has. It would be nice for our country and for them for the Centre for regenerative medicine to finally be finished, completing the vision of my return. But that doesn’t depend on me, unlike the childhood dreams that depended on me and which have been accomplished. Let those that don’t become the nightmare of those who deliberately obstruct them.
“Leskovac has long been known for its good cuisine, but as of recently, it’s also known for SPEBO MEDICAL. People come to us from all over the world – we were recently visited by one Serbian couple who lives and works in America and who started their fight against sterility there. Noting their surname in the clinic, they were asked where they come from, and when they said Serbia they were asked why they didn’t go to Leskovac, and so now here they are in Leskovac… Moreover, all published scientific papers bear the address of Kragujevac and Leskovac, and that’s one more affirmation of the country, and for the south is very important because it confirms that the most important thing is how you work and not where. That’s why I’m proud of the team in Leskovac. All of them – except Petra, of course – hail from Leskovac or the surrounding area. Hardworking people, young people eager to work and with prospects that they realised in the hospital, and thanks to which they were able to establish families and offspring.
“Many people count the babies coming from in vitro, but I like to count how many babies have been born to the young employees who chose to stay instead of leaving.
And when we underline the total, six of our young nurses and doctors have in the meantime had 11 children, which is yet more proof that work provides an ability to plan for the future”.
Public attention was recently spiked by the news that Dr Stojković didn’t pass the first round of selections for the Department of Chemistry and Biology at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts – SANU. Asked what the problem could be, given that he satisfies all the required scientific criteria, he explains:
“There is no falsifying in science because there is an index of scientific significance that’s called the Hirsch or h-index. It evaluates the work of scientists on the basis of their quantity of published works and how many times these works are cited, i.e. significant. And that’s how this index prevents cheating. SANU members themselves state that a scientist who has an h-index of 20 is significant, while one who has H40 is exceptional, and one who has an index of 60 or over is among the most unique scientists. To be the first scientist to successfully clone a human embryo, to be the first to extract stem cells from so-called dead embryos, to be a pioneer in breeding and differentiating stem cells, in epigenetics and reprogramming… All this has been awarded a large number of scientific papers, and that’s how I came to possess an h-index of 60.”
In its call for the admittance of members, SANU seeks quantitative (specifically the h-index) and qualitative criteria (membership, reviews, projects, the promotion of science, reputation internationally and domestically, which is only acquired if you produce a decent number of high-quality papers).
“My h-index was not enough for me to pass the first round in the proposed Department, while four candidates were admitted that have a combined h-index that is lower than mine. It is very difficult to understand that process where people who haven’t been active in science for years decide and where the regular members of that specific Department have an average h-index of 17. But SANU’s problem is in its selection method – if they don’t recognise the h-index, why do they seek it? If they request it, why do they accept those who have a low index? That’s like rewarding bad students and punishing excellent ones”.
Dr Stojković today maintains professional cooperation and contacts with Valencia (Spain) and Newcastle (UK). He has joint projects with institutions there and is very grateful for that, as it is very difficult to work in science within our country. This is not only due to a lack of funds for consumables and a lack of equipment and infrastructure but also due to a complicated, cumbersome system that doesn’t see science as a priority. For example, in Kragujevac they’ve been waiting for 10 years for the establishment of the Stem Cell Bank, and for people wanting to deal with science this means lost time, lost results, lost competitiveness, lost young scientists:
“The science of embryos and stem cells is developing extremely rapidly, which is why care always has to be taken to ensure transparency and the purposes of science, as well as its ethics, science should shift people, people should shift science, but only if that is to the benefit of humankind.”
If we do not have a critical mass of well-educated young people, we will not have an economy, technology and progress – we will have darkness and the vociferous victory of falsified knowledge
Had he not gone out into the world and acquired rich scientific experience, he wouldn’t be able to rightly state that experience and knowledge represent the greatest wealth in a scientific career. The possibility to work with the best equipment and people from all over the world is a priceless treasure, which Dr Stojković illustrates on the basis of his experience.
And when we ask him whether a young person who has today gained a lot of knowledge and experience in the outside world should return to Serbia, Dr Stojković answers:
“Everyone must decide for themselves. If they feel that they live there physically, not to say metabolically, but that in their thoughts they have remained in Serbia, that says something, but they don’t have to return if they want to do something for their country. My generation had a beautiful childhood and excellent education, but many that came later, unfortunately, didn’t. But Serbia, whether she’s somebody’s mother or somebody else’s stepmother, very often gives us motivational insight into the way the struggle between desire and opportunity looks, between how things should and should not be done, and how we can work when we have nothing.”
“When someone asks me what I’m proud of, I can’t single out anything in particular, because if I must be proud then I’m proud of my academic journey as a whole. And that would never have been if it weren’t for my nearest and dearest being with me. That’s why I’ll be eternally grateful to my mother and sister, who suffered because of me. As a youngster, I didn’t believe my father when I asked him for something and he responded by saying that he didn’t have it. It was only many years later that I came to understand that he really didn’t have it”.