The difficulty of fleeing from bombing and war to find safety in a faraway country forged Jelena Aleksic’s determination to make the most of life, a principle which has guided her ever since.
‘Even though I was in a strange place, and only young, I realised there were opportunities all around me,’ she says. ‘So I told myself I was lucky, given what was going on at home, and would make sure I took them.’
Jelena grew up in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, in the 1990s, when the region was plagued by conflict. The country was ruled by Slobodan Milosevic, a brutal dictator, and under economic sanctions. That backdrop formed one of Jelena’s earliest memories, and first challenges in life.
‘There were power cuts, so we used to meet up with neighbours and play cards together to pass the time. New banknotes were being printed continuously because of hyper-inflation. I used to help my grandmother with counting the zeroes to go shopping. I remember we got as high as a 50 billion dinar note.’
Jelena’s family actively protested against Milosevic, and she joined in the protests throughout her childhood.
‘We knew it could be dangerous, because he’d send the police against demonstrators,’ she says. ‘But it was the right thing to do.’
The protests led to a personal discovery which became a touchstone of Jelena’s life; the power of truth. Despite thousands of people turning out on the streets, the state run media ignored the demonstrations.
‘I wanted to be a journalist. To tell the people what was really going on. I realised truth has the power to change the world. That truth could eventually win through against the lies.’
Jelena helped out at one of the radio stations that were broadcasting uncensored news. But the fighting worsened, and by 1998 NATO was threatening to bomb Belgrade.
Her mother, a civil engineer, was offered a job in Britain, at Aberdeen University. And so, aged 12, Jelena moved to Scotland.
‘It was a really big decision to make,’ she says. ‘It was a different culture, a different language and so difficult at first. I had no friends and felt lonely. But my mum and I supported each other, and we got through it.’
Jelena believes it was her refusal to give up that helped in those troubled times. ‘I’m curious by nature, which I think is a good thing. So I went out and learnt English, and got to know people, and the place. It took a couple of years. But when I made a good friend at school, at last life was feeling much better.’
She went to university in Edinburgh, to study Genetics, ‘because understanding the building blocks of life are one of the great truths of science.’ But there was a twist to her degree days.
No longer interested in becoming a journalist, Jelena found another new way to hunt down the truths of life.
‘I joined the philosophy society, and ended up running it. The first thing I had to deal with is that it was a couple of thousand pounds in debt, which is a lot when you’re a student. But we set about fundraising and soon sorted that out.’
Jelena was elected President of the society. And that became a formative moment in her life.
‘It was my first leadership role and I was very anxious. But I really enjoyed it and I realised I had the talent to be a leader.’
She graduated with a first class degree, applied to the University of Cambridge for a PhD, and won a prestigious scholarship in genetics from the Medical Research Council. Once more, Jelena’s fascination with finding the truth came to the fore, but this time in yet another form.
‘I was studying the early development of the brain,’ she says. ‘I was intrigued with understanding how life develops. It’s such a profound thing. I think scientists have a duty to discover the truth.’
Not content with unravelling the mysteries of life, Jelena found a new challenge to occupy her, and a dangerous one. The art of fire performance, which combines dance moves with spinning flaming objects like hoops and fans.
‘I saw someone doing it at a party in Edinburgh, and told myself I had to give it a try,’ she says. ‘But I wanted to do it in front of thousands of people.’
Months of hard practice culminated in a moment Jelena will never forget. Leading a team, performing outside King’s College, as part of the celebrations of Cambridge University’s eight hundredth anniversary.
‘It felt fantastic. There were thousands of people there and it was such a buzz. I was so proud of what we achieved.’
But on the academic front, life for Jelena was proving more worrying, leaving her with another problem to solve.
‘I realised I didn’t really like lab work. I’m more of an ideas person than actually doing the experiments. So it was hard to keep going.’
Again however, rather than give up, she changed direction in the search for fulfilment. Jelena shifted her PhD into computational biology, analysing complex data, and received her doctorate.
Alongside her work in academia, she searched out another new challenge. During her doctoral studies, Jelena had heard about, and found inspiring, a charity, TREND; Teaching and Research in Natural Sciences in Africa. Now suitably qualified, she investigated further, and couldn’t resist the appeal.
‘I loved it, the work was so fulfilling,’ she says. ‘It felt like I was really making a difference.’
She taught courses in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, helping African researchers to understand the latest scientific techniques.
‘Empowering people and giving them the chance to unlock their potential was inspiring. It felt like an impactful thing to do.’
Back in Cambridge, Jelena rediscovered an interest in the field of rare diseases. It was an area she had experienced during her PhD. ‘I admired the dedication and determination of the scientists,’ she said. ‘Trying to help people who are suffering and often badly served by medicine because their illnesses are so rare.’
She started a company, GeneAdviser, to enable faster diagnostics of rare genetic conditions. Starting from nothing, Jelena created an online market place for clinical genetic tests, raised hundreds of thousands of pounds, built a team, and protected her technology.
‘It was initially a success, working with 15 different countries,’ she says. ‘But advances in DNA sequencing meant the process became cheaper, which undercut our business model. The work wasn’t wasted, though. We told the NHS all about the system and they saw its potential, so they took it on. I’m proud to say they still use it.’
The company closed, but, as always, making the most of any opportunities, Jelena wrote a book about her experiences, The Entrepreneur Survival Guide.
‘Writing helps me process what I’ve been through, but I wanted to help others too. So much of the journey of starting a business is hard, and I wanted others to have the benefit of what I learnt.’
Jelena’s latest adventure is to set up SparkBio, a life sciences consultancy in Cambridge. ‘There are a lot of potential connections between business and science, which could help all of society,’ she says.
‘I always think that if you can’t do some good in life, what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?’
Alongside her work, Jelena writes and performs poetry, something she sees as another incarnation in the pursuit of the truths of life. ‘It helps me to understand myself, others, and the world around me.’ And as if that wasn’t enough to fill her time, she has taken up a new hobby – powerlifting.
‘It feels good for women to strength train,’ she says on being able to squat 170kg. ‘There are a group of us who train together, and it’s empowering to be strong.’
In a rare moment of calm, reflecting on her life, and all her many experiences, Jelena has some simple tips for success and personal fulfilment.
Story was written by Simon Hall.