Ivana Nikolic: Journey from war refugee to UNCG to outstanding cardiologist

Posted on October 04, 2022

Dr. Ivana Nikolic

Dr. Ivana Nikolic ’02 is a refugee from Bosnia who found her way to UNCG’s Biology Department.

When her family arrived in Greensboro, Nikolic was the only one who spoke English, and she had already graduated high school. So their resettlement agency went about lining up a job for her. After all, somebody needed to work.

She was to be a manager at a candle factory. But her parents, themselves well-educated, heard of the plan and were insistent – “No,” they said, “Ivana will go to school.”

“My parents told me, ‘Go find the nearest school,’ so one morning I went to the bus stop, got on a bus, and asked – in my very proper British English – if the driver could please take me to the nearest university,” she said. Just a few stops later, the driver opened the door, informing Nikolic, “This is your stop.” It was UNCG.

UNCG’s Biology Department quickly became like a second home for Nikolic. “I was either working in the lab or in this cubby space in the Eberhart Building,” she said. “It felt like a family. I felt very safe and supported.”

She conducted research alongside treasured faculty mentors: cell biology with Dr. Karen Katula and embryology in frogs with Dr. Mark Hens.

Her biology professors, she said, understood her situation. They knew that her life was complicated, that her parents didn’t speak English, that she was working several jobs as a math tutor to support her family. Nikolic also volunteered as an interpreter for her resettlement agency. The role often took her to doctor’s offices, where she would translate for displaced families much like her own.

The experience, in part, inspired her decision to become a doctor. With help from UNCG’s pre-medical advisor at the time, Dr. Rob Cannon, Nikolic was accepted to some of the country’s top medical schools. She chose Duke University School of Medicine and later received prestigious postdoctoral positions at the University of Pennsylvania, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard University.

These days, Nikolic is an established cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she also teaches medicine at Harvard.

It would be easy to conclude that life has turned out well for Nikolic, that perhaps leaving Bosnia was beneficial, in the end. But that would be an oversimplification. “People who haven’t had to leave their home don’t understand what it means,” she said. “Once a refugee, always a refugee. It took my family 20 years to get back to where we originally started before the war.”

By Elizabeth Keri, College of Arts and Sciences
Illustration by Antwain Hairston ’21

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