Nikola Stikov is a postdoctoral fellow in the MR Neuroimaging Lab at the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre (BIC) of the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University. He has completed his BS, MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. Dr. Stikov is the organizer of two international seminars for magnetic resonance imaging in the Republic of Macedonia and has been one of Macedonia’s finest ambassadors abroad. EURAXESS Macedonia conducted an interview and here are the highlights.

1. Dr. Stikov, could you briefly tell us what are you working on at the moment, what is its intended use and the future prospects of the scientific project?

I develop new methods for magnetic resonance imaging of myelin. Myelin is a key component of white matter in the brain and its thinning results in slower conduction of information and poorer performance in cognitive tasks. My current project is in collaboration with the McGill Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, and the goal is to measure the differences in myelin thickness between healthy individuals and those affected by multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, or autism. So far nobody has been able to measure the myelin thickness in living humans, so accomplishing this will enable faster diagnosis and better therapeutic monitoring in patients following a one-hour MRI scan. The MRI community is excited by the potential of our project, and this autumn I held a series of lectures at Harvard/MIT, Stanford, UC San Francisco and the University of Pennsylvania to showcase our latest findings.

2. Going to your career development, you have finished your studies outside your country of origin. What was your primary motivation and how would describe your study experience abroad?

In one sentence, the motivation was to see the world and to keep learning about it. I first left Macedonia when I was 16 to spend a year in the US as an exchange student funded by NOVA. As I had enough credits to get an American high school diploma, many people advised me to stay in the US and enroll college right away. However, I decided to return to Macedonia, which meant another high-school diploma, but also another year of fun with my Macedonian classmates. I then applied to American universities, and I was fortunate to get a four-year scholarship from Stanford. From there I took it one day at a time, often switching fields of study, traveling to Germany and Japan to learn and to teach, taking classes on film and jazz, and eventually stumbling onto brain imaging, one of the most vibrant and exciting research areas in science today. In a world where many people seize the day and speed through life, I am glad I took my time exploring, and I plan to be doing that for many years in the future.

3. Although educated in USA, you have stayed in touch with your country and you are familiar with the current situation in Macedonia. How would you grade the quality of education in Macedonia and the possibilities for professional development? Do you believe young researchers in Macedonia are provided with the best conditions?

I have taken 42 trips to Macedonia in the past 18 years, so I am in a unique position to observe the changes through a series of disconnected snapshots. I have no doubts that Macedonia gave me the best possible primary (Braka Ribar) and secondary (Korcagin) education, but I am aware that recently the public education sector has been struggling. On the other hand, the matriculation rates for Macedonian students have been constantly increasing. While in 1997 I was one of a handful Macedonians at a top 10 school, today we have people from Macedonia at every major research institution in the world. I cannot speak of the conditions for young researchers in Macedonia as I have been away since 1997, but I can speak of the high quality of those that I have collaborated with. So we must be doing something right, which is even more impressive given that our science and education budget is embarrassingly small compared to other countries.

4. As a researcher in an international environment, do you believe that participation in international projects and international mobility represent an added value to the researcher’s career?

Science cannot be local. To be a scientist, one must be collaborating with colleagues abroad, submitting articles to international journals, and presenting at international conferences. I am afraid some people in Macedonia do not understand this, and they are holding back the rest. The famous saying ‘better to be a big fish in a small pond’ might hold for politicians or businessmen, but a scientist needs to step out of the pond and swim with the big fish, otherwise their work will become stale and largely ignored.

5. According to you, what are the essential elements of a researcher’s career?

If I said ‘hard work’ readers will yawn, so I will take that as granted. However, ‘hard work’ does not necessarily mean spending all day in a lab. Sometimes one has to step out of the comfort zone and come up with an experiment or a collaboration nobody else has thought of. This is where intuition and networking come in handy. Finally, there is sheer luck, which is hard to accept for people who view science as absolute. Science is a long-tail distribution, and only a small percentage of the total output will ever have an effect on the world. We need thousands of mistakes to come up with one idea that will change the world. The catch is that scientists are notoriously bad at identifying that winning idea until it hits them on the head. And sometimes it needs to hit them multiple times, so a hard head sure helps.

6. Are you familiar with the EURAXESS network and its benefits?

I became aware of it through my contacts with the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts. I have yet to use it, but I recently realized that there are many collaborative projects with North America being promoted through EURAXESS, so I hope to make use of the available resources. In the long run I hope to continue my career in Macedonia, and for a country with very limited resources EURAXESS will prove to be invaluable.

7. In your opinion, what is the state of science in Macedonia and is there place for improvement?

There are pockets of good science in Macedonia, but the objective parameters, such as funding and number of peer-reviewed papers per researcher, are dismal. Part of the responsibility lies with the institutions, as there is not enough money for science, nor a clear idea of research priorities. Speaking of medical imaging, which is my area of expertise, investments were made in infrastructure such that Macedonia now has better MRI scanners than those on which I completed my PhD at Stanford. However, most of this equipment is severely underused, which indicates that very little thought went into what to purchase and how to best utilize it. That being said, I am also amazed by the defeatism spread from within the academic community. Many initiatives to make the most of the available resources are met with disbelief and excuses why no good science can ever come from Macedonia. I strongly disagree, and I hope to prove the doubters wrong by example. My research is extremely portable, and I know I could be doing world-class research from anywhere, including Macedonia. What is needed is a good team, and I am in the process of building it.

8. According to you, how can Macedonia, using its own instruments, stimulate scientific development? What is Canada doing in this regard?

Macedonia must increase the budget for scientific research if it wants to train and attract good researchers. We also need to specify research priorities, because even countries as large as Canada and the US cannot conduct world-class research without focusing on select problems. The US BRAIN initiative is an example of a targeted research topic that will result in a significant amount of US research funds put toward understanding the workings of the human brain. Macedonia is too small to spearhead such a large initiative, but it could focus on a narrower field with a critical mass of researchers and equipment, such as MRI. The bulk of the money will still have to come from abroad from international grants, but the seed needs to be local.

9. You have been part of the organizational team behind two international seminars for magnetic resonance imaging held in Macedonia in 2008 and 2011. Your contribution has been significant for the development of this area in Macedonia. What are your future plans in this regard?

The project started as the brainchild of three Macedonians (Borjan Gagoski from MIT, Gorazd Rosoklija from Columbia University, and myself), and is now the largest MR gathering in the Balkans, attracting over 200 participants and invited lecturers from the leading world universities. The end goal is a Macedonian Neurological Institute, a place not unlike my current institution, where world-class brain science is funded by international grants. In my line of work, access to patients and an MR scanner are crucial for conducting cutting-edge research, and Macedonia already has that. The international funding is necessary to cover the expenses of the research staff, and fortunately for us, in Macedonia a little money goes a long way. Science is already being outsourced, and we could be a desirable destination for international collaborations if we convince the funding agencies that we have the know-how and the vision. Both of these qualities can be found in the four Macedonians who are currently working on MRI research at MIT (Dr. Borjan Gagoski), University of Arizona (Dr. Iva Petkovska), Harvard (Dr. Vesna Prckovska), and McGill (myself). As each grand journey starts with a small step, our next step is the third MRBalkan conference, to be held next year in Turkey.

10. What would be your advice to the young researchers in Macedonia?

Network! If you cannot afford a conference, use LinkedIn, Twitter, ResearchGate and every other social media platform that will bring you closer to the leaders in your field. Apply for funding! EURAXESS is an excellent starting point for learning about opportunities in your research area. Get ready for a nomadic lifestyle! Research success will not come to you, so you will probably have to be chasing it around the world for the rest of your life. If you are smart, persistent, and extremely lucky, you might win a Nobel Prize. If not, you can still enjoy the journey.