Class of 2021: Family bonds inspire biomedical engineering major to fight breast cancer through cellular research

By Amy Wolf

Yoanna Ivanova wears a red-and-white Martenitsa bracelet around her wrist. It’s a Bulgarian tradition representing health, success and renewal—all of which the biomedical engineering major and A. James Clark Scholar is hoping for as she prepares for a future fighting diseases like cancer through cellular research. Watch her YouTube video.

Yoanna Ivanova, Class of 2021 engineering graduate and A. James Clark Scholar. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

“I was born in Bulgaria and immigrated here as a child, and I like to keep my culture with me everywhere I go. I love cooking Bulgarian food for my friends here at Vandy,” she said. “My family in the U.S. and in Bulgaria are truly my inspiration.”

A series of family heartaches propelled Ivanova’s desire to work on research tied to breast cancer. “It’s an emotional subject for me because I’ve had a lot of family and friends impacted by breast cancer over the years. It’s taken a lot of loved ones from me, so it’s close to my heart in that regard,” she said. “I never expected breast cancer to be something that impacted my life so much.”

Ivanova has been doing research since her first year at Vanderbilt and found her niche during sophomore year in the lab of Marjan Rafat, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, biomedical engineering and radiation oncology.

“It’s a tumor and tissue microenvironment laboratory,” Ivanova explained. “I found that I enjoy working with cells—understanding how they develop and how to manipulate them. My project focuses on fibroblasts, which are a type of normal tissue cell located in the breast cancer tumor microenvironment.”

Research through COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Ivanova looks at scientific work.

“It makes me realize how quickly science can stop if there are barriers in the way, but also how quickly efforts can be redirected and ramped up toward a very common goal,” said Ivanova, a biomedical engineering major. “It also makes me realize how fragile science is because it depends on all this funding, support and having people who are willing to put years of their life toward research.”

L-R: Ivanova presents her research collaboration on the role of irradiated fibroblasts in recurrent triple-negative breast cancer; Ivanova and some of her lab partners, pre-COVID; Ivanova’s research was part of the SyBBURE research program at Vanderbilt.

Community and mentorship

Ivanova credits her connections with fellow engineering majors in the Clark Scholars Program as well as the SyBBURE Searle Undergraduate Research Program, which she applied to and joined her freshman year, for creating positive experiences in and out of the lab. SyBBURE provides funds to undergraduate students at Vanderbilt to explore any aspect of STEM that interests them through independent research and team-based design projects.

“Within the program, there are a lot of graduate students and faculty giving advice and helping you walk through the process of what it’s like to do research and not to be afraid of failure. That kind of mentorship and community really helped me strive in research, because I definitely experienced lots of moments when I felt like I wasn’t good enough or an experiment fell apart,” she said.

Ivanova’s next step is graduate school. She recently won a Graduate Research Fellowship Program scholarship through the National Science Foundation. And though she’s moving on from Vanderbilt, she says she’ll always hold the university close to her heart.

“People talk about the ‘Vandy bubble’ as if it’s a bad thing because you’re somewhat separated from the rest of the world,” she said. “But I think there’s a beauty in being able to focus on yourself, your prospective career and making friends for four years. Having that space to really develop your own skills is valuable. And Vanderbilt does a wonderful job of providing you with all of it.”

Contact: Brenda Ellis, 615 343-6314