PNNL: Worldly Experience Is a Catalyst for Change

Bojana Ginovska can put things into perspective.

Perhaps witnessing the political disintegration of Eastern Europe can do that to a person.

Ginovska was in her early teens when her native Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It was a two-year process, but by 1992 she and her family were no longer citizens of Yugoslavia.

“A series of major political events served as the catalyst for exacerbating inherent tensions in the Yugoslav republic,” says The Breakup of Yugoslavia, 1990–1992, published by the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian.

While the catalyst that changed her life then is not as positive as the impact of the catalysts she is studying now, catalysis today plays a major role in Ginovska’s life. She is leading a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) physical biosciences research team, using the transformative power of molecular catalysis and enzymes to explore scientific principles underpinning the chemistry of energy transformation and storage, vital to the United States’ energy future. Ginovska, a computational chemist, is also helping move team members to PNNL’s Energy Sciences Center (ESC), the laboratory and collaborative workspace opening this fall that will accelerate discovery in chemistry, materials science, and computing. All that while she is entering the home stretch on a long, eventful journey to earning a PhD.

Uncertainties nearly derailed science career
“I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in science,” said Ginovska, who was tapped as a middle school student in her hometown of Skopje to participate in a nationwide physics competition. (She placed third.) “But there were a lot of uncertainties. I figured the best thing I can do is just do what I can do—make sure I get my work done, make sure I look for opportunities, take risks and see where it takes me.”

She traces her interest in science to the April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Although the event was about 1,000 miles northeast of her home, there was concern throughout the region about the effects of nuclear fallout. Ginovska, a child at the time, paid attention, asked questions, and sought answers. This sparked her interest in physics and the science of energy.

At 17, she became an exchange student in Seattle, following the footsteps of an older sister who’d also been an exchange student. Ginovska spent time perfecting her English and explored the University of Washington campus. There, she visited the astronomy department, met a scientist working on the Hubble telescope, and sat in on theoretical physics classes. When she returned to Skopje, she enrolled at a local university seeking a physics degree. But after two years of navigating the rigors of college and the backdrop of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, as well as ethnic tensions and eventual civil war in nearby regions, she dropped out of school.

Fluency opens a NATO door
She became an interpreter for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Kosovo Forces support headquarters in Skopje, formed in 1999. At the time, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia military fought daily. Ethnic tensions were high, and nearly a million people had fled Kosovo as refugees.

“I’d been taking English classes since third grade, and I also spoke German in middle school and high school,” Ginovska said. “Language skills are something my family had always put a lot of emphasis on, education in general, really. Learning foreign languages was very important.”

She occasionally wore a flak jacket and battlefield helmet for her new job, accompanying officers with the NATO forces.

“We traveled all around the country,” she said. “Each day, you go to work never knowing what you’re going to end up doing that day. You might have to spend six hours in a car driving on the other side of the country to meet with somebody, to meet some leader in a village.

“And, you know, there were scary parts. There was a time an interpreter was with a team responding to a report of an unexploded device being found in the woods. It turned out the team was actually near an unexploded cluster bomb. Everyone was told to turn off their cell phones because they may activate the devices and to follow their own footsteps to exit the area safely.”

The job was also fun.

“I got to meet people from all over the world because it was an international headquarters. There were a lot of troops from Europe. But I remember all of our chefs were from Bangladesh and they made delicious Eastern food, which was something you don’t get to come across very much. I made a lot of friends. When you’re in difficult, stressful situations, you do bond with the people pretty quickly, kind of to have each other’s backs, even if you’re not in a direct combat situation. I did not start reflecting on the risks until later on in life. At the time, it was an adventure that paid well.”

Following in sister’s footsteps
During Ginovska’s NATO tenure, her sister—the one who’d preceded her as an exchange student—had graduated from Washington State University (WSU), and started work as an engineer at PNNL. At the first opportunity, Ginovska followed her sister’s lead, also enrolling at WSU Tri-Cities.

By 2005, Ginovska had earned a bachelor of science degree in computer science, spending that summer as an undergraduate intern at PNNL. Two years later, she’d earned a master’s degree in scientific computing, and two more years later, become a PNNL staff scientist.

She credits PNNL with inspiring her transition from computing—an area of study she chose because she figured it was the fastest track to a good-paying job—to science.

“Senior scientists wanted to help me find my path forward,” Ginovska said. “I’ve always been open to research in new fields. Being out of my comfort zone is something that’s not unusual to me. I always figured that if you want to learn, you can learn. PNNL helped me do that.

“I attribute the success of learning about physics and chemistry to the mentorship culture in the group. People at the lab have always been willing to take the chance, the time, and the energy to talk to me and give me guidance, provide me with the right literature, and have discussions with me. I’ve always been comfortable going in an office, asking questions, tossing out ideas, and try to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. That’s always been one of the most attractive parts of working at PNNL.”

Ginovska recalled one conversation in particular in 2010 with chemist Wendy Shaw, now the PNNL Physical Sciences Division director.

Shaw approached Ginovska one day to talk about a project exploring enzymes.

“I know you have no background in it,” Ginovska recalled Shaw saying, “but I was told you’re a quick learner. Are you interested?”

Ginovska examined the written research proposal as well as some work conducted previously by a postdoc, and decided the project looked interesting. She agreed.

“That’s how I’ve ended up looking at a lot of enzymatic reactions at PNNL,” Ginovska said. “That’s how I ended up doing what I am doing now. It all just started with a question, ‘Are you willing to learn?’ And I seem to always say yes to that.”

Today, Ginovska is near the finish line on earning a PhD in materials science at WSU.

“Not quite there,” she said in late April, while speaking on a PNNL-sponsored Zoom presentation.

She was speaking as part of PNNL’s Community Science & Technology Seminar Series. Ginovska is an enthusiastic adherent to the stated goal of the seminar series, “to help the general public better understand and explore how science transforms our world.”

And on this evening, she will do whatever it takes to get even a nonscientist to grasp the basic concepts of her topic, Catalysis – Nature’s Way.

Bringing catalysis to the masses
She wants her audience to understand that enzymes are nature’s catalysts, that they are biomolecules that help chemical reactions occur on demand. Soon enough, Sonic the Hedgehog is on the screen. Why Sonic the Hedgehog? Because Ginovska uses one of her sons’ favorite cartoon characters to illustrate the rapid impact of an effective catalyst. You had to be there.

Ginovska detoured briefly to discuss the pioneering scientists and their discoveries that paved the way for today’s catalysis discoveries: Anselme Payen, the French chemist known for discovering the enzyme diastase in 1833; Louis Pasteur, who in 1860 looked into fermentation of sugar into alcohol; Wilhelm Kühne, who coined the word enzyme—the Greek word for yeast; and Eduard Buchner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1907 for his biochemical research and his discovery of cell-free fermentation.

Then Ginovska pivots to kefir. Kefir? Yes, as it turns out, the fermented drink and plenty of other examples of catalysis can be found in the kitchen.

Ginovska will present basic lab-level concepts to the audience before the hour-long presentation concludes, but the information is allowed to unfold slowly, dispensed patiently in an obvious effort to avoid scaring away any viewers.

The virtues of patience and open-mindedness
Patience is one of Ginovska’s traits, said PNNL computational scientist Simone Raugei, who has known his colleague since he arrived at the lab in 2010.

“It’s part of the reason why she’s the one who keeps track of our postdoctoral researchers,” Raugei said. “She has the patience for that, whereas many of us don’t.”

And that patience can be applied to experienced colleagues.

Raugei recalled a time when Ginovska’s research group was studying the mechanism of an enzyme, resulting in findings that were published in 2016 in Science. Publication in the respected journal could have represented a pinnacle.

“But there was experimental evidence that suggested something still needed to be clarified,” Raugei said. “And then we, as a team, started discussing, ‘what could it be?’ And then we started thinking of a completely different mechanism.”

Raugei came up with an alternative explanation, initially dismissed by a collaborator at a large Midwestern university. Raugei and the team, with Ginovska’s backing, continued to investigate and push the new hypothesis.

“It was a change of 180 degrees in what we were looking at,” Raugei said. “At the beginning of this new thought, it was crazy. But Bojana took this idea and she explored it. She could have dismissed it when I threw it there on the table. But we did some brainstorming and she said, ‘yes, let’s see.’ We recently published a paper on this new possible mechanism. And we are still working on this idea, something that I was originally afraid would be dismissed as a crazy idea.”

Ginovska agreed she is patient, but said she believes she’s an equal part stubborn. Both traits, she said, help when conducting computer modeling simulations of other scientists’ work. Often, she noted, the modeling did not produce results the scientist anticipated. Bottom line: Back to the drawing board for the scientist.

Ginovska acknowledged that she has earned a respectful and humorous reputation “for being the place where hypotheses go to die.”

Ginovska’s computer modeling prompted so much additional work for Shaw, the division director, that Shaw presented Ginovska with a printed quote. Ginovska has kept the quote on her bulletin board. She’s certain the quote will be among the many items that find a place in her new ESC office.

The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

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