August 1, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Rumyana Mihaylova ’05
Radosveta Gencheva from the Class of 2015 describes herself as “an eclectic collection of interests and hobbies, curious to know more about any subject even if it’s just for the sake of knowledge.” She is the founder of the Healthier Lifestyle activity at ACS, and has attended the ACS Choir, Hands on Chemistry, Tennis, and Vinyasa yoga classes. Radosveta is among the students who have dedicated time to teaching Bulgarian to international faculty and has been a prominent member of the Friends of German Culture Club. On top of that, she has always been on the President’s list. “I like to compare the different “truths” different people and cultures have without trying to search for “the one truth,” says Radosveta when I ask her to share something essential about herself. Meet one of the newest members of our alumni family.
What are your dreams made of?
I usually remember some of my more vivid dreams when I wake up. They are a mixture of crisp lines and smudged silhouettes, of blinding light and pitched darkness, of chaotic images, of conversations, of music, of my wishes and my fears.
Now for those other dreams… The dreams about my life are made of some form of egotistic compassion, of trying to help others in order to feel good about myself. My dreams also rely on the power of knowledge in its purest form, in its absoluteness, not the knowledge that has to be sold or bargained to continue existing.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life?
The biggest challenge is more of a deep belief I have held which has been an obstacle in certain life situations. It lies in the process of learning and realizing that not everyone’s opinion about me matters, that success isn’t about being able to state your possessions and awards, but about being able to state your contentedness that you are doing the right thing with what has been given to you.
Has someone taught you a lesson you will always remember?
I think this is a lesson taught by “life” because I have had a few instances in my high school career where it was completely valid: by learning enough and diving deep enough, you can maintain your interest in any subject area and this is most easily inspired by people who share their knowledge and experience with enthusiasm and who are truly devoted to what they do. Almost always they have the clear sense that they are doing this in order to serve others and this is what makes their lives meaningful.
I remember you telling me that Scott Fitzgerald’s Gretchen’s Forty Winks is among your favorite short stories. Tompkins, one of the characters in Gretchen’s Forty Winks, is so focused on keeping his life balanced that he experiences a nervous breakdown. Have you ever experienced the irony of life?
My experience with the irony of life has had quite the opposite effect on me. I vividly remember thinking (in third or fourth grade) that music and especially singing were areas of life that I would never get involved in as anything more than a listener. As a sixth grader, I started establishing a very profound connection to classical music, through which going to concerts turned into a way to spend quality time with my mother. While refining my taste for music, I entered the College and started attending various extracurricular activities. At some point, I decided that the time had come for me to start singing and, for once, to try and be on the “other side” of appreciating music, so I joined the ACS Choir. It was actually months later that I realized the irony in all of this. But this made me exalted because it was proof that with a little courage and a lot of hard work, what I had considered to be impossible could become reality.
I find your interest in targeted genetic treatment fascinating. Please tell us what provoked it, how it developed and whether you are planning to pursue it.
I can’t say that there is a single thing which provoked my interest in Genetics and Genomics: I think it’s more of a logical progression of what we studied in Biology 11 and an online course in Biology I took last summer. The MOOC I took was Introductory Biology but its focus was on Genomics, Genomics being the field that observes the bigger picture at the intersection between Biochemistry and Genetics, as well as between different viewpoints of analysis. This is achieved by analyzing both a single component of the organism and a whole organism missing a single component.
The professor of the online course was brilliant: he not only explained the material in detail, but also brought students to the cutting edge of science by talking about the newest methods and developments in the field (like building TALEN proteins which bind to particular sections in DNA and start turning on the transcription of the genes at these sites). His lectures resembled narratives and were structured so that students could be put in the immediacy of the problems scientists have faced through the years and the experiments they have devised to solve them. By the end of the course it was impossible to not retain my interest in this subject.
This year I did my own research on the topic by adapting it to papers I had to write in Civics and English. This gave me a chance to look at how exactly targeted genetic treatment can save lives and improve the quality of life for millions of people. It is a therapy relying on gathering and sharing enough genetic data from cancer patients, for example (it is with cancer that the hopes of making huge progress in treatment are the highest), analyzing the specific mutations that cause the cancer in each individual and devising a set of up to three drugs which target the current cancer-causing mutation and the existing ones which are likely to cause cancer once the first mutation is dealt with. Small but still significant progress has been achieved in this field with the development of the Gleevec drug generations which target some forms of leukemia by “repairing” the biochemical pathways cancer has blocked. The thing is that patients experience relapses after up to a year, which is caused by those other pre-existent mutations that now cause another “break” in the system which needs to be repaired by another drug. So the aim of the therapy is to prevent relapses from occurring, which to me is a revolutionary approach to medicine replacing the “one size fits all” methods. It is only natural that implementing targeted genetic treatment is a difficult task, requiring the joint efforts of scientists from around the world, but the prospect of being a part of such a team and bringing targeted genetic therapy closer to its practical use is exhilarating.
Tell us about a song/melody that has a special meaning for you.
I consider my formal introduction to chamber music as the first time when I heard a live performance of Schubert’s quartet Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden). The performance was brilliant and touching, but what brings me back to this piece three years later is the message and the ingenuous way in which it is presented. The quartet was inspired by a poem and is almost considered to be program music. In the poem a young woman is on her death-bed and sees Death, as a horrible apparition made up of bones, coming to her. She is paralyzed with fear and pleads with Death to go away and let her live. Instead of really proving to be the merciless and terrifying thing that comes and takes one’s life away, Death sits by the woman and holds her hand. Death tenderly calms her that she will now only go to sleep and be at peace, that there is nothing to be afraid of. This is a very rare representation of Death in Western culture, which I find more akin to Buddhism and similar Eastern belief systems. The reworking of this into music and the display of the contrast between the horror of death and the calm acceptance that everything is transient, while self-ironizing and doubting itself through the form of the tarantella dance, is what makes the string quartet really special.
What do you love about yoga?
For me yoga evolved from a way to spend time with my mother when I was twelve to a part of my daily life today. Yoga is more than physical practice; it is a mindset, an attitude towards the self and the surrounding world. It is about learning to fine tune the body and the mind, not to exactly control them but to rather not allow them to take irrational control over us. I love the feeling of contentedness after a yoga class, of wholeness, of a connection to something very deep inside, to the core of who I am. I love the way yoga has made me more aware of my behavioral patterns, of my repeated mistakes and the fact that everything started from awareness of the breath. I’m fascinated that yoga truly believes that once problems are made evident – not in the sense that someone comes up and tells you what they are, but that you yourself are able to fully grasp them on your own, – their solution is the easiest thing there is.
Teach me something about balance.
Perhaps I’m neither the best example of a balanced person nor the best teacher, but here is what balance means to me. Balance in general (this does go very physically and literally with the so-called balancing yoga poses) is about having anchors and being able to move freely, to almost float lightly at the same time. It’s about understanding that freedom is the freedom from desire, not from constraints. I have found myself losing my balance when I forget to stop and think about the bigger picture of what I’m doing and why, when I allow myself to be taken up by the “assembly line” of life (go to school, earn good grades, go to college, earn good grades, go to graduate school, get yourself the highest paying job possible), by what is generally expected of everyone. But naturally balance isn’t only about being passive and taking a step back: it’s about taking a small but courageous step towards other people even when you fear their judgment.
Do you have a message to our alumni?
I really don’t like to preach, so you can replace the pronouns yourself accordingly: what the College has taught me and what I hope to be able to put into practice in “real” life is taking advantage of the opportunities available wherever I am.
This material was first published as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine in June 2015.