Three-time Illinois bioengineering alumna Caroline Cvetkovic joins faculty

10/1/2021 Huan Song

Bioengineering welcomes professor Caroline Cvetkovic in fall 2021. She instructs BIOE 303 (Quantitative Physiology Lab) and BIOE 360 (Transport and Flow in Bioengineering). Read about her path to Illinois and lessons learned during her academic and professional career.

Written by Huan Song

Bioengineering professor Caroline Cvetkovic is a proud alumna of Grainger Engineering
Bioengineering professor Caroline Cvetkovic is a proud alumna of Grainger Engineering

Bioengineering welcomes Caroline Cvetkovic in fall 2021 as a teaching assistant professor. She instructs BIOE 303 (Quantitative Physiology Lab) and BIOE 360 (Transport and Flow in Bioengineering). In this interview, Cvetkovic discusses her path to Illinois and lessons learned during her academic and professional career.

Tell us about your path to Illinois?
I began my career at Illinois in Fall 2007, as a member of the fourth undergraduate class in the department of bioengineering. (Back then, there were 23 students in our class, and the department was located on the 3rd floor of DCL!) In 2011, I decided to continue my graduate studies at Illinois. I earned my M.S. in 2013 and my Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 2017. I am very proud of how the department has grown and excelled in the nearly fifteen years that have passed since I began my journey at Illinois. I am thrilled to once again be a part of a growing program within the world-renowned Grainger College of Engineering!

Why did you pick bioengineering when you were studying here?
In high school, I enjoyed nearly every subject. I had a strong interest in everything related to STEM, but I was also drawn to literature, foreign language, art, music, and history. I knew about different engineering degrees from a poster in my physics classroom, but I didn’t feel particularly called to most of them. During my junior year, a university sent me a promotional book with each page describing a different major. The bioengineering page caught my eye and made me feel excited about a world in which I could complement my technical skills with an opportunity to express my creativity and love of writing.

What are you most excited about in your new role and what course will you be teaching?
This year, I will be teaching BIOE 303 (Quantitative Physiology Lab) and BIOE 360 (Transport and Flow in Bioengineering). As an alumna of the department, I am excited to work with current students and to be able to relate to them on a personal level, while helping to develop new programs and projects that will keep BIOE flourishing – alongside some wonderful colleagues who used to be my professors! My parents (LAS ’77, ’78, and FAA ‘78), sister (AHS ’10, ’12), and husband (ENG ’11, ’16) are all Illinois alumni as well. I am excited that our family can continue to take pride in the diversity and excellence of so many extraordinary accomplishments and opportunities across the University. Finally, after living in Houston for four years, I am excited to see fall colors on campus. There’s nothing more beautiful than orange leaves against a blue sky!

Can you share your grad school research and experience? 
During my Ph.D., I worked in the Laboratory of Integrated Biomedical Micro/Nanotechnology & Applications with Dean Rashid Bashir. My project focused on the development of 3D printed, soft hydrogel ‘machines’ that were powered by tissue engineered muscle cells (see more about my research here). My grad school experience was extremely collaborative, bridging labs across the College of Engineering, the campus, and multiple partner institutions across the U.S. As part of an NSF-funded traineeship, I had the privilege of being involved in research exchanges and partnerships with MIT, Georgia Tech, and the National University of Singapore. More than anything else, it is the people I met – in class, in lab, and at conferences – who made my experience successful by providing support, encouragement, and ideas.

My advice to current graduate students: remember your ‘why’ and let it be the motivation that drives you forward, making the world a better place than you found it. Engage in research that excites you, and remember that even the failed experiments are making you a better scientist and engineer. Think bigger than just publications. Seek to collaborate, not compete. “Lift as you climb” – help others along the way. Spend time outdoors and away from your research. And finally, take advantage of this time to form close friendships with your lab mates, graduate cohort, and members of the community; there’s no shortage of wonderful and talented people at Illinois who will help you achieve your dreams.

Do you have any career advice for students?
It’s okay not to know what you want to do next. Try everything! Leave doors open. Make connections and find common interests. Go for it, even if you think you’ll fail. Finding out what you don’t like is just as important as discovering what brings you joy and motivation at the intersection of your skills and passions. This discovery can be a lifetime of searching; enjoy the journey and don’t stress about the destination.

Have you ever worked outside of academia like in industry or tried entrepreneurship? If so, what was that experience like?
I completed my postdoc at a research institute associated with a hospital. Working with Dr. Robert Krencik in the Center for Neuroregeneration at Houston Methodist Hospital was an incredible experience in which I was able to observe current progress and challenges in clinical neurosurgery while performing basic science and translational research in neural engineering and regenerative medicine. I was also fortunate to take part in a fellowship program that included clinical observation as well as multidisciplinary mentorship in neuroscience, orthopedics, and biomaterials. (Read more about the result of that partnership in our recent publication!) Performing research in one of the world’s largest medical centers was an eye-opening experience that humbled me, broadened my understanding of current clinical needs, reminded me every day of the importance of our work, and deepened my appreciation for countless dedicated healthcare workers.

What TV shows are you watching now?
In the past year, I’ve enjoyed watching Ted Lasso, Schitt’s Creek, The Crown, Kim’s Convenience, and the Great British Baking Show.

What are your favorite past times or hobbies?
In my free time, I enjoy being outdoors (hiking, biking, and water activities), spending time with my family (especially my niece and nephews), traveling, photography, baking, bookstores, coffee shops, board games, museums, theater, and Illini sports!

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This story was published October 1, 2021.