January 21, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Rumyana Mihaylova ’05
Nora Pencheva is an ACS alumna from the Class of 2005. She holds a BA in Neuroscience from Kenyon College, a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Rockefeller University, and has currently assumed the position of a Post-doctoral research fellow at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI-AVL), where she is doing research on the deadliest brain tumor. In 2014, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recognized Nora for her outstanding academic achievements by giving her the prestigious Harold M. Weintraub graduate student award. Nora’s compassion, nobility, and dedication to saving lives humble me. I believe you will be humbled, too.
Nora, how did you decide to enter the field of Neuroscience?
It all happened a little bit by chance for me. Before starting college, I had no clear idea what I wanted to major in. I was interested in many subjects including math and psychology. Then, during my first semester at Kenyon, I decided to enroll in an introductory neuroscience course purely out of curiosity. The subject was entirely new to me and its interdisciplinary nature (combining math, chemistry, physics, biology, and psychology) sounded daunting yet fascinating. I had always expressed interest in understanding human behavior, but so far psychology had fallen short in providing me with rational answers as it largely treats the brain as a black box. On the contrary, neuroscience tries to explain how the brain works on multiple levels, thereby bringing up a lot of interesting questions to study. Once I got introduced to neuroscience, I knew this was what I wanted to spend my time studying.
You wake up in the morning and go to a laboratory to face and fight one of humanity’s greatest fears – cancer. How does it feel to work in the field of cancer biology?
Cancer biology is a very exciting and dynamic research field to be a part of at the moment. From a biological point of view, cancer is a fascinating subject as by understanding what goes wrong in cancer cells, we not only give hope for better therapeutic strategies, but also uncover new fundamental principles that govern the cells in our bodies. Over the past few decades, an increasing amount of research has focused on human cancer and we have made progress for some cancers, which has significantly extended the lives of a number of cancer patients. With that said, cancer is expected to surpass cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death worldwide. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done and sometimes it feels very daunting. At the Netherlands Cancer Institute, where the research unit is within the main hospital, I get to see cancer patients in the hallways every day and that makes it all feel very real. If anything, it gives me another level of motivation as well as the responsibility to keep working hard.
What is the focus of your research?
My research interests have spanned a wide range over the past ten years. Initially, my research was focused on the biological substrates underlying neurobiological diseases such as addiction and autism pathology. In graduate school, I shifted my focus to something completely new to me: cancer biology. There, I studied the molecules underlying the spread of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. After I finished graduate school, I wanted to look for a way to combine my passion for neuroscience with my training in cancer biology. This is how I decided on studying brain tumors. I am focusing on one type in particular: glioblastoma multiforme. Glioblastoma is the deadliest form of brain tumor that typically affects young adults. Presently, there is no cure and patients are given the dismal prognosis of less than 1 year to live. What makes glioblastoma so deadly is the tendency of the tumor cells to diffusely migrate and invade into the deep layers of the brain, thereby escaping any therapy or surgical intervention. My research aims to understand the basic molecular pathways that make glioblastoma cells so invasive, with the hope that in the future we can design drugs that block these pathways and stop the progression of this deadly tumor.
Is there a part of the brain that you find especially interesting? If yes, could you tell us why?
It is hard to name a single part of the brain as especially interesting. What I actually find fascinating is how the different parts of the brain come together and work in such flawless unison to make us think, feel, sleep, walk, eat, you name it…. If I had to name one part, though, I think the hippocampus is very interesting. Presumably, this is where our memories are stored and lesions in that area of our brain affect our capacity to retain old memories and form new ones. Interestingly, the hippocampus also receives connections from the amygdala (the part of the brain that deals with emotion) and the olfactory cortex, which could explain why certain memories high in emotion are more vivid in our minds and why sometimes certain smells can strongly evoke a particular memory.
You are not only one of the brilliant minds of our generation, but also an advocate for gender equality. Do you think it is harder for women to get recognition in the field of science?
I think nowadays it is much easier for women in science than it was 20 years ago and I feel privileged to have had all the opportunities I did. During my graduate training at Rockefeller, I was inspired by a lot of great women scientists and I never really thought about gender inequality. Now that I am back in Europe, I see that there is more gender inequality going on in science and there are very few women in high positions. I think part of the reason is that women here are often more family-oriented. At the end of the day, regardless of gender, results speak for themselves and if you are good, you always get the deserved recognition…eventually.
Where do you seek inspiration?
I am always inspired by reading about the lives and struggles of past great scientists, who despite all the difficulties, left something behind to be remembered by and helped shape our current understanding of the world.
What is the scientific triumph you dream of witnessing?
It is hard to name a single one. I think finding a cure for some of the debilitating mental disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease, which can strip a person out of his or her personality) will be a pretty big scientific achievement to witness in our lifetime.
How is your life in Amsterdam different from life in NYC?
I had a great 5 years in NYC and it was difficult to leave that special place, but at the end I felt that it would be best for me, both personally and professionally, to experience something new. I had always known that I would come back to Europe eventually to be closer to my family. Amsterdam is much older than NYC, and there is a much stronger sense of history here. Also, the pace of life in Amsterdam is much slower. It was a bit difficult at first to quit my 24/7 working mentality that NYC had ingrained in me, but now I greatly enjoy having a boundary between my personal and professional life. I have found that taking time away from my work actually makes me better at it and the Amsterdam lifestyle encourages me to do so. Also, being in Europe allows me to experience so much more culture and history than the US had to offer and this can be a great source of inspiration!
Imagine you had to draw the objects you use in your daily routine. What’s in the drawing?
Bike, computer, microscope, pipette, test tubes.
Share with us one of your favorite photos and tell us what makes it special.
Tyulenovo is a special place for me, one of the most hidden, soothing, and romantic parts of Bulgaria. It’s something I could not do without, at least once a year.
Share with us one of your most precious ACS memories.
I will always cherish my memories from my first year at ACS and my first English classes. I was placed in section 8/7, which was reserved for the students who had no prior knowledge of the English language. Our first lesson was with Mrs. Struch, a very sweet and kind Canadian ESL teacher who spoke zero Bulgarian. Likewise, we spoke zero English. That first day we did a lot of hand gestures and picture drawing. Our inability to communicate verbally brought us all closer together as we had to use our joint imagination to come up with other means. I never ever imagined back then that I would become as comfortable with English as I am today.
What are you grateful for?
My family, great friends, having good health, and feeling loved. I think that’s really all you need in life.
Do you have a message to the ACS community?
I think that young bright minds like the students at ACS should always follow their dreams and passions, while also trying not to fall under any sort of pressure due to their peers, academic competition, or someone else’s expectation of them. It is important to enjoy the journey more than the destination itself. It’s not enough to simply like or love what you do, but you also need to work hard and relentlessly at it and then the results will come… eventually. Most importantly of all, you should stop and appreciate what you have already achieved before you set your mind on the next big goal. Life is there to be shared and enjoyed with the people close to you. So make some time for that, too!
The interview was first published in June 2015 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.