Trainee Profile: PhD Student Eva Vasiljevic

Eva Vasiljevic

Educational background:
BA French and Biology, certificate in Global Cultures
Master of Public Affairs, expected 2019

Can you describe your research interests? Current research projects?
I study the genetic basis of disease at a population level and environmental factors that can change a person’s genetic predisposition to disease. For example, I ask questions such as, “What is the genetic reason that one group of people has higher rates of disease than another?” Currently, I study the genetic basis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and whether lifestyle factors can modify a person’s genetic risk of AD. We are all born with some risk for disease, and I want to know what we can do over the course of our lives to lower that risk. Research has found that more exercise, following a healthy diet, keeping engaged socially, and getting adequate sleep are all associated with a lower risk of AD. However, we don’t know if these lifestyle behaviors are also associated with a lower risk of the disease in people who are genetically predisposed to developing it. My research investigates whether people with a high genetic risk of AD can lower that risk by adhering to healthy lifestyle behaviors.

How did you get into your field of research? What sparked your research interest in health and aging issues?
I have a background in basic biology and genetics research, and I wanted to combine that background with my interests in statistics, economics, and policy to identify preventative measures for disease and illness. The field of population health gives me the opportunity to do just that. I am curious about interactions among ones biology, physical environment, and social environment. Population health allows me to explore those interactions, and it is a field that gives me the skills to study multiple health issues.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
The interdisciplinary nature of the University of WisconsinMadison provides a great environment for me to combine my interests. It is a large institution with many high-caliber researchers and students, which makes it a great environment for learning how to become a good researcher.

What’s one thing you hope people who are exposed to your research will come away with?
In general, our health is the result of our biology and the physical and social environments we experience over the course of a lifetime. We often encounter information about diet, genetics, or the perfect exercise routine aimed at improving our health. It is important to keep in mind that no single factor is deterministic of our health. Rather, these factors work together.

What’s new and exciting about your research?
Genetics research is rapidly evolving. It is exciting to see that one set of information – our genome – can give us insights to multiple diseases.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
The Wisconsin Idea is a principle that research done at the university should be used to help improve the lives of people living in communities throughout the State of Wisconsin and beyond. I study Alzheimer’s disease, which is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In Wisconsin, 110,000 people are estimated to be living with AD. The average annual out-of-pocket cost for a person with AD or another form of dementia is approximately 11,000 dollars, while that figure is around 2,000 dollars for someone without dementia. Any progress we can make to identify the causes of AD and preventable measures would help improve the lives of people in communities across and beyond Wisconsin.