MILICA magazin awards
the CITATION and the “Ruza” order to
for her exceptional teen attitude
Dunja Pavlovic is a young biologist from Valjevo, who just started studying at the Faculty of Biology, University of Belgrade. We were introduced to her through a lecturer at the Petnica Science Center- home of Serbia’s youth and knowledge. Dunja isn’t the only one, or the best one, but she is special- and a prime example of this generation of teens and the new world they live in.
This citation serves as a showing of trust to our youth— their faces lit by phones and tablets.
Talking with this “genius teenager” ended up being a kind of mental and moral botox. We share with you our chat with the 18-year-old Dunja, in which we discuss science, cramming, growing up, about banging your head agains a wall, dreams, seasonal depression …
In 8th grade we were taught about ecology, the relationships between living organisms, and we were supposed to give examples. We were working in groups. But the lesson sort of dragged on, nobody appeared interested, and the teacher ended up saying none of us will end up doing anything that has to do with biology anyway. That’s when something in me snapped, and I said to myself: I’m going to be a biologist!
The next day I was the only one who brought back two full pages of various examples of different biological relationships. I got some extra credit and proved to the teacher I actually do want something.
Petnica opened you up to a career in science. How did that happen?
I live in Valjevo, so once, when I was younger, I was taking a walk with my dad. I was maybe seven or eight, and I saw this big building that looked like a factory. I asked my dad what it was. He said it was Petnica, a place where only excellent students go. So I said: “Dad, I want to go there, I want auto be an excellent student!”
The first time I went I was 8th grade and I went to the Summer Science School. I remember when they posted the list of students who were accepted, I was so happy. I had a teacher recommendation and essay and a resume, I wrote it all down, sent it, and waited a month. They posted the results on Facebook and my friend and me were tagged. I was ecstatic!
How was it there?
What was so perfect about it?
What else is there, that’s not available to us regular people?
I don’t think it’s like that. I’m positive that anyone who wants to can get in. You need to work for it. If you set a goal for yourself, if you’re determined, you’ll succeed. I had a wonderful time there. There were kids from all over Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia…it’s the first time I was surrounded by so many people from so many different places, without my parents, alone with people I’d just met. We had a lot of group activities, we hung out together, and it really warms my hear whenever I think of it. I’m still in contact with some friends I met there. At the Summer Science School we learned a lot about anthropology, linguistics, astronomy, history..
I enrolled again when I was in high school. I didn’t care about which program I’ll be in, I just wanted to go, be with people, go to lectures together. I find everything interesting, even physics and chemistry, which I struggled with throughout high school.
There was always something there that grabbed my attention. I sent my application and was invited to the Biology Program. I’ve found myself there. So I went every year of high school. We do have a lot of work to do there, but there’s also time to hang out, and that makes it really special. It becomes your second family. I feel at home there, I feel like the lab is like my bedroom!
I feel special when I know a bit more than my peers. Anything that goes beyond the curriculum is more interesting to me. That’s what Petnica gave me.
What about nature fascinates you the most?
Microbiology, although I’m not certain it’s what I want to dedicate myself to. All these tiny organisms that play such a big role, in both our bodies and the ecosystem. We’re changing our environment so much- the hot topics now being antibiotics, pollution, global warming….I’m interested in the way microorganisms react and adapt to these changes. As much as we change nature, it always learns to readapt, except it might not change in a way that’s good for us.
But young people often find science too boring or too serious, don’t they?
Science is never boring! There’s always something interesting, though I realize it’s not like that for everyone. There’s this stereotype of scientists being boring, too serious, always thinking about work. But I use science to channel my creativity, and I’d also like to find creative ways to promote science.
Do you like working in teams?
I like listening more than I like talking. I build myself by listening to others. That’s why I’d rather work with someone who has more experience than me, who I can learn from. I’m okay with working with my generation too, that’s when I feel like part of a team. We’re all the same then and we’re all doing our best and learning new things. But I’m aware that unless I learn from the more experienced and pass it down, there’s not much point in what I’m doing.
Are you nerdy?
Well I guess people assume that if you’re a good student you must study a lot. But I’ve realized I don’t need to study much if I just concentrate in class. I had lots of notebooks in which I’d take notes (everyone loved them!). Then when I get home I copy all of it into a proper notebook and I’ve already done half the job. I just read it once more the day before the test and I’m good to go. It’s my method of not putting in extra work into something I’ve already had to dedicate time to. But a lot of people don’t understand that, and they spend time in school on their phone or talking to friends, they don’t pay attention and then they have to spend a lot of time studying.
I think it’s so much easier to learn by listening to someone explain, than reading a book.
What about a perfect GPA?
I’ve always had excellent grades, though not necessarily all A’s. I think getting all A’s is a bit forced, though obviously some people need it. I needed it too, to get into college. I realized I need to work hard for it. But I don’t think people should overly bother with those things- my parents never forced me to have perfect grades but they knew what I was capable of and if I got a slightly lower grade, knew I could do better. I realized it too. All the hard work I put into getting good grades paid off now, since I got into the college I was aiming for. I didn’t need to have a perfect GPA, but it needed to be very good.
How did you handle getting your first B?
It was a bit hard, then. When you’re a kid you’re told about perfect people and excellent children and we all strive to be that ideal. But when you get your first B, you realize it’s not really that much of a problem. Though I don’t think you should let yourself go, you should be aware of your abilities and strive to be even better.
Older generations often claim young people are lost, that they’re becoming a slave to technology. Is there anything you could say in defense of your generation?
We’re not lost. There will always be those who work more than others, and those who’re satisfied with less. It’s a different time, and older people might struggle to understand why we’re on our phones all the time, or on the computer. They simply did not have those tools, but would probably be the same as we are, if they had. Society is moving forward and there’s no reason to stay behind. It’s also a matter of being informed. I like reading articles online, even books are more easily available. As someone who wants to be a scientist, I read a lot of research papers online, which I wouldn’t be able to ding in the local library. Some of them are even only available online, some are only in specialized journals which not many institutions here have access to.
The availability of information is sort of a vicious circle, in the sense that you end up just staring at your phone instead of going out and being with people. And it is a lot better to actually see someone in person than just to talk to them online.
Facebook is great because it connects people and there’s groups you can use to communicate, it’s very useful, but besides that it’s a bit uninteresting, there’s too many ads, irrelevant or incorrect information that gets on my nerves. Then I feel bad that I even spent time reading those things. I try to avoid Facebook. I watch a bit of TV, I mostly get news online, and I watch movies on my computer too.
Are you special?
Others see me that way, and it bothers me. I don’t like being the center of attention. I do like being special, but for my own sake, not for others. I try and have my own style, my own way of expressing myself, a unique taste.
Are you a romantic? Or is that not really a thing anymore….
Oh, that seems so old-fashioned! I can be creative and do something special for someone, but I wouldn’t say romantic?
What about politics?
I started being interested in politics when I realized a person cannot function as just an individual. We all function within a society, as independent as we are, we do always depend on other people. I don’t talk much about politics with my friends, we don’t feel the need to. There are times when something happens and it gives a topic to discuss. The people I’m surrounded with share similar views as I do, so sometimes I think that’s just what everyone thinks. But then I’m very often surprised it’s not really the case.
Would you rather build a career abroad?
I would, because I think there’s more opportunity in what I want to do. But I wouldn’t be sad if I ended up staying in Serbia. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’d try and make a change, maybe bring science closer to people. Though for that, I need to step out of my own box.
You’re very much a teenager! How would you describe this tricky time?
It’s a period in your life when you don’t have many responsibilities, you still depend on your parents, you’re grown up but still carefree. The parents pay the bills, feed us, take care of us and support us, but we’re capable to make some decisions for ourselves and reach some level of independence. That’s what’s good about it. I’ve realized the adult world is difficult, full of ups and downs and tons of responsibilities . I’d like to stay a bit childish, keep playing, but make it have a purpose somehow.
How do you deal with parents, rules?
My relationship with my parents is based on understanding, as long as they know where I am and who I’m with and can reach me, I’m free to do whatever.
You seem quite mature and confident. Have you outgrown your parents and the need to be under their wing?
No, I do need them. Even today, although I’m 18, I do need their advice. The peak of my independence was going to Belgrade alone to take my entrance exam, enrolling into college, opening a bank account. But I need their help in making certain decisions. They know me better than my friends and I trust their judgement. I think parents are very important at this age..
Of course, the advice I get from my friends is important too. Especially concerning something they’ve already been through and I haven’t. Still, I take this kind of advice with a grain of salt because I know I may have reacted differently, I have my own way of dealing with things.
What else do you need to feel completely grown up?
I think I’ll feel grown up when I’m my own person, when I’m able to earn my own money and be independent. That’s one of the things I’m missing now. My parents would disagree, but I think I’m already capable of functioning on my own and figuring out some basic life chores.
I feel guilty about not earning my own money, a bit like I’m leeching, although I’m only 18. I have a need to work, at least a bit. So I can pay for my own meals during college, or have some money to go out.
In these situations I do wish I lived abroad, there’s a lot more opportunity to get a job while studying, and it’s not so easy to do around here. College demands lots of work and dedication. I’m really impressed by people who manage to work while studying. I know how hard it is to find a job, and have enough time left over to study.
Are there things you’re good at outside of school?
Cooking! I’m not sure if that entails being a foodie, but I love quality food, I don’t mind spending money on restaurants and meals that’ll blow me away.
My friends are still a bit sceptic when it comes to being in the kitchen, but I thrive there. I love cooking, experimenting, eating healthy. I also help my mom with housework and do some chores.
I notice my friends don’t do that, their mothers or grandmothers still clean up after them. It makes me feel a bit more grownup than them.
You’re very responsible?
The responsibility came in the last few years. When I was in high school, I was still a kid in my mind and was not responsible at all. But the closer I get to college and living alone, the more responsible and “grownup” I become.
What’s your friend group like?
Petnica was the first to give me the opportunity to meet different people. Different in the sense that they were not like people I’ve been in contact before. I’ve realized what kind of people I like, whose company I enjoy, who I like listening to. That’s how I started forming a preference. I’ve meet girls from Croatia and Montenegro- I’ve never known anyone from there before! My friend group started to branch out, and I matured along with it.
What about the people in college?
I already have lots of friends in Belgrade. I hope I won’t lose touch with friends from high school, though. I’m really close to all of them. I realize we might not be able to spend as much time together as earlier, since we’ll be going to different colleges. But I’ll meet many new people, and that’s a challenge for me. I’m used to new people, but before I’ve always had my two or three best friends who were always there.
Is Valjevo too small for you?
It is. It’s quite enough for a high-schooler. We have a Researcher’s Society, so kids get the opportunity to try themselves out in science. I was part of their astronomy group, we had camps, did research…It’s a really good side of Valjevo. And of course, Petnica is nearby. But after four years of high school there, things tend to get repetitive. That’s why Belgrade is interesting. We couldn’t wait to finish high school and go to Belgrade. I’m excited that I’ll be there the entire week, not just on weekends like I am now. I’ve always been interested in various events, at KC Grad for example, or the Science Center.
How are you emotionally?
I always need someone to pull me together, give me a slap and say I’m being dramatic. Injustice makes me incredibly upset. I’m too emotional, I cry over everything. I get depressed in autumn, for example- I cry over everything, TV shows, saying goodbye, seeing someone again…I just cry. I need someone to give me advice. Parents, yes, but someone from my friend group too, someone who’ll say: come on, it’s over, it’s okay, let’s go.
What about problems in love?
Horrible! I’ve had them in high school, I think I’m still not over them. I’ve had my first love in 7th or 8th grade, but this now, I think, is the most turbulent thing that can happen.
And again I’m not quite mature enough, I’m not ready to make important decisions— while on the other hand I want to be independent and experiment. It’s the first time I think about love in this sense, that’s why I say “experiment”, it’s the first time I’ve gone through something that really knocked me down.
But I think the experience made me more capable of making choices, like who I want to be with, why I don’t want to go out with someone- it gave me better judgement.
I might have been wrong in refusing help at the time, deciding to break the ice by myself, without any experience to guide me.
When it comes to school and career you feel comfortable confiding in your friends and parents, but you keep your emotions to yourself?
I’m confident when it comes to science and school, but with other things, I prefer going through them alone- then, if it goes well, I’ll talk about it.
So, you keep private the things your not confident it?
Yes, I agree.
You expect to always receive recognition of your actions, do you not have the right to a mistake?
If I do, everyone will know I made a mistake. I’d rather keep it to myself.
Who set up these expectations?
Nobody ever asked me to be perfect. But for some reason I do ask that of myself.
So getting a B was once the biggest tragedy, and now it’s heartbreak….
It’s a bit funny to me, now. It’s much easier to share something I’ve been already through and can now laugh about, than things I’m going through now. Lately I got used to sharing things with my friends instead of just keeping them to myself. Going through problems alone didn’t really work out well for me.
I have to ask you to comment on the opening scene of Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides”, in which a young girl, when asked by a doctor why she attempted to end her life, replies “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl”.
It’s that period when then you start going through things, and many kids end up wanting to go through it alone. I’ve had friends tell me they’d rather confide in me than their parents. And I guess there are things I’d rather tell my friends than my parents, too.
There’s a lot of turbulence going on, both physically and emotionally, and it can lead to making some bad choices at that age.
Like seasonal depression?
Yes, I’ve been through that when I was 13 or 14. But it’s changed now. I could understand that girl, because we all go through times when we think we’re not strong enough, but we want to go through it all alone and end up hitting a wall. We’re too open and naive and just haven’t met enough people to be good at deciphering their intentions.
I think help can only come from talking and opening up to someone you’re close to. Even my experience can be used to show that you’re not alone, that it happens to everyone. That you’re not a single black spot, you’re not helpless.
Do girls have it harder?
I don’t know. I’ve never been a teenage boy, and I’ve never even talked to one about it.
Does the gap between dreams and reality bother you?
I’m always an optimist. I hope things will change. I hope I’ll be able to do what I love and earn a decent living. I hope I’ll have a choice. I’ve come to realize that not everything I want is possible. So I modify my dreams a bit. I’m aware that, if I end up staying here, I’ll have lots of problems and stress and things to worry about. But with science, I think I can stay a bit childish, do serious work but also keep playing and experimenting. I like taking risks. It helped me reach some goals I thought were impossible. If I set a goal for myself, I try really hard to fulfill it. I take it one step at a time. And I stay optimistic, I try and find a grain of good in every problem.
Like with autumn depression – there’s always the holidays after!