Vanja Klepac-Ceraj and Petra Klepac

Vanja Klepac-Ceraj

Department: MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and MIT/WHOI Joint Program, Biology
Advisor: Martin Polz
Research interest: investigates patterns of bacterial diversity in coastal habitats
Expected graduation: June 2004

Petra Klepac

Department: Biology, MIT/WHOI Joint Program
Advisor: Michael Neubert
Research interest: models outbreaks of a virus impacting harbor seal populations
Expected graduation: June 2006
Contact: Vanja and Petra are sisters living and studying in Massachusetts. But their home is Croatia, where childhood sailing trips on the Adriatic Sea sparked their interest in marine science careers. Now in their late 20s, they are both students in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, where they enjoy the culture of American science but dream of their country, and talk of someday returning.

The sisters grew up in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, which houses nearly a quarter of the country's 4.7 million residents. The women are unique within WHOI's community of 130 joint program students not only because they are the sole siblings in the program, but also because they are among just three students who hail from Croatia. The third student, Tin Klanjscek, is also a graduate student in biology. He attended the same high school as Vanja and Petra.

Judy McDowell, Associate Dean and Senior Scientist in Biology at WHOI, said that 20 to 30 percent of current students in the joint program come from outside the United States, including Mexico, Australia, Canada, and Israel, as well as several European and Asian countries. "It's enriching for everyone here when a student comes from another country," she said. "When Vanja first arrived, Croatia was in political conflict and it made other students more aware of that conflict. She was able to share in a way that opened people's eyes."

Here, Vanja, 28, and Petra, 25, talk about living in the U.S., their scientific research, and their home in Croatia.

Question: What brought you to the United States?

Vanja: I first came to the U.S. in 1993 as a high school senior on a scholarship with the Rotary Club. I wanted to go abroad to learn a language. I spent the year in northern Wisconsin, where I experienced the coldest winter ever. During that year, I became a competitive downhill skier for my "new" high school. Even though I had a blast and met amazing people, I kept saying I would only stay a year. Then, I was accepted into Beloit College on nearly a full ride. In June 1998, I began work at MIT and WHOI as a graduate student. Eleven years later, I am still in the States.

Petra: I came as a summer student after my junior year in college to work with Dr. Michael Neubert, who is also my current advisor. At first I thought, there is no way I will get into such a competitive program. I was coming from the University of Zagreb, a university I didn't think people had heard of, so I didn't think I had a chance. Luckily, I was wrong. When I found out that they did mathematical ecology here, I said 'oh, that sounds perfect, I have to go.' During that summer I also became acquainted with the Joint Program. Four days after finishing my undergraduate studies in Zagreb, I returned to WHOI as a Joint Program student.

Question: Tell me about your research?

Vanja: I work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Dr. Martin Polz's microbial-ecology lab. Currently, I am preparing a thesis that I plan to defend in late June. My thesis investigates structure of bacterial communities in two coastal habitats - water column and sediment.

Microbes are the most ubiquitous organisms on Earth. Just in one milliliter of water alone there are over one million bacteria and in one gram of sediment there are over one billion of these tiny organisms. Using molecular tools, I am trying to determine how many different types of bacteria there are to determine how closely related bacteria are to each other. By understanding boundaries and patterns of bacterial diversity, we can start deciphering the environmental factors that control the diversity and dynamics of microbial populations.

Petra: I model outbreaks of a deadly virus infecting harbor seals. In 2002 alone, this virus killed 50 to 60 percent of the northern European seal populations. This raised concerns about how the virus spreads among the populations, what determines the final mortalities, and the role that outbreaks play in determining long-term population sizes. For my thesis research, I'll be using a data set collected in Sweden to study the dynamics of these outbreaks in conjunction with mathematical models for infectious diseases.

Question: What are some of the differences you see between research and education in Croatia and the United States?

Vanja: WHOI offers us an education that we would not be able to get at home. Both of our fields are new and exciting, but they are still practically non-existent in Croatia. Yet, there is an increasing interest for them as Croatia realizes the importance of protecting the Adriatic Sea and its surrounding habitats from human impacts.

Petra: The main difference is in money. There is just not as much funding available in Croatia, and there isn't a lot one can do about that.

Question: Will you return to Croatia for work and to live?

Vanja and Petra: We would love to go back. However, our return depends on many factors, such as funding opportunities, available research positions, and projects.

- Amy E. Nevela

Klepac Sisters

(Photo by Tom Kleindinst, WHOI)