For Sofia Merajver, age is no indicator of ability.
By the time she was 7 years old, Merajver had correctly diagnosed her uncle with diaphragmatic abscess, was reading heavy volumes of literature suitable for adult scholars, became a teaching assistant for her elementary school’s second-grade class, and established a peer-mentorship program.
By age 19, Merajver had immigrated alone to America with only two suitcases, graduated with an undergraduate degree six months after arrival, and completed graduate school five years later.
She’s now professor of internal medicine in the Medical School, and epidemiology in the School of Public Health.
“I don’t think I was somebody who stood out as being unusual or abnormal,” Merajver says, “But I did stand out in the kinds of questions I asked for my age and in my willingness to ask for things that adults do.”
Merajver was born in Argentina, where she completed the first two years of her undergraduate career at the University of Buenos Aires studying physics. However, after civil unrest affected her studies, Merajver decided to leave her home and family to continue her education at the University of Maryland. She graduated in 1973 with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics, and began graduate school there the same year. She received her master of science degree and a Ph.D., both in physics, in 1975 and 1978, respectively.
As a researcher and scientist, Merajver’s main ambition was to herald a new era of patient treatment methods. At the time, cross-disciplinary areas of research within the scientific sphere were non-existent. Biophysics — Merajver’s original area of specialty — was unheard of as a discipline in medicine. However, at the time when merging together different scientific disciplines, such as biology and physics, was only hypothetical, Merajver advocated for the necessity of such methods.
“I knew early on that I would not be successful, that the time was not yet right for such cross-cutting research,” Merajver said. “I hoped that I would eventually be successful, but the time was not right.”
Despite this, with years of hard work and the support of her personal and professional networks, Merajver witnessed breakthroughs and major progression in this multidisciplinary approach to biomedical research.
Combined with her accelerated educational experience, her triumphs with promoting inter-departmental relationships in the sciences taught Merajver the importance of not limiting oneself to pre-established boundaries.
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“I still feel that a lot of education’s energy is wasted putting people in categories and in their places, instead of teaching them how to think, and how to question the existing paradigms,” she said. “And that’s kind of how I teach science right now to my trainees.
“I encourage thinking. I don’t care what level they are at. Grades alone is not what it takes. Knowledge comes and is a requirement, of course, but dedication, imagination, perseverance, cheerfulness, all these other qualities are what makes real progress in your own life and in society.”
Reflecting upon her own experience having a strong personal and professional support network, Merajver aims to encourage students to forge their own pathways in similar ways.
“Never hesitate to have a conversation with people about what it is that you would like to contribute,” she said when asked what advice she would give students. “You never know when you’re going to be heard and be given an unusual opportunity to do something entirely different. In institutions of higher learning, feel free to ask people, ‘What will it take to get where I want to go?’ because there is more than one path.”
Q & A
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
The best moments are always when we discover a new drug or a new way to understand cancer. One such moment was when we figured out that there were specific genes that caused cancer cells to move and those genes also were responsible for actual metastases in animals and human tissues. That was something I had hypothesized as a medical student, and was very happy on my way home, crying with delight, at finally being able to prove a new concept in cancer progression.
What can’t you live without?
Regarding something about me personally (rather than my relationship with others such as family or friends), I have never tried to live without work, so I guess I must need it to be who I am. Regarding things that give me great pleasure are fabulous books, great music, and nature.
Name your favorite spot on campus?
Besides my lab, you mean? That’s No. 1. Second is Hill Auditorium, especially on an evening when I am anticipating a great musical experience with amazing musicians and with my fellow Ann Arborites, the best audience I have ever seen anywhere in the world is right here in Ann Arbor!
What inspires you?
A deep desire to use science to ameliorate suffering and provide others, hopefully many others, with the chance to overcome cancer altogether or to live satisfying lives, even with it in the mix.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, a true non-fiction masterpiece that hovers almost miraculously between science and life stories. Only a master writer could accomplish that! Should be required reading for every inhabitant of the United States. I am starting “Blood Line: Stories of Fathers and Sons,” by David Quammen — spectacular so far.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Undoubtedly my father and my mother, both of whom died young and did not get to enjoy much of my career beyond high school. I have missed them always. My Ph.D. thesis was dedicated to them for their “unfailing love and quiet wisdom.”