Two Serbian-Americans Awarded Serbia’s Highest Honor

On February 15, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic honored a number of individuals at a ceremony. Among the recipients were two Serbian-Americans. David Vuich is the last surviving member of the Serbian Apollo Seven, who worked on the U.S. space program. Dr. Gordana Vunjak Novakovic is a professor of biomedical engineering and medical sciences at Columbia University in New York. Both sent letters of appreciation:.

David Vujic

Mr. President,
I extend my utmost gratitude and appreciation to you , and the Government and people of the Republic of Serbia for your having selected and bestowed upon me this most precious gift of honor, the distinguished “Order of Karadjordje Star of the First Class “, I am humbled by the fact that I have been placed among the giants in Serbian history and appreciate your considering my worthiness as member of this esteemed society
of which I will forever cherish.

As a young boy my father often reminded me of how fortunate I was to have been born and American, however, never to lose sight of your Serbian heart that must be prepared to carry forth the teaching of our glorious heritage, customs, traditions, folklore and faith and to provide support to those in need.

I accept this award in honor of my dear father, my departed colleagues of the Serbo Seven Apollo Space Launch Team, and Serbs everywhere and trust that I have succeeded in displaying my love and compassion for our people in its proper perspective. I pray that I have met your expectations and the obligations of my fathers wishes.

I am delighted to have established a certain recognition in the Serbian Community, and will continue to promote the positive identity and pride of our people.

I convey my sincere best wishes for continued good health, happiness, and prosperity for many years in the future.

Respectfully,

David Vuich

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic:

I am tremendously happy and humbled to receive Serbia’s highest honor, and to join this small group of distinguished individuals whom I have long admired. It is incredible to be among those recognized most highly for contributing to the Serbian people and representing Serbia in the world. This honor came to me as a complete surprise, and I could not be more grateful for being nominated and awarded this medal.

Let me first say that this is a shared honor. I owe a lot to Serbia. Belgrade is my home city where I was born and where I got my education. I graduated from the famous high school Zemunska Gimnazija where I first started to do research in chemistry and biology, and went on to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Belgrade. My parents and my professors have encouraged me, telling me that I could be anything I want. My dream was to be in academia, pursue science, and mentor young talent.

The dream came through when I was offered a faculty position in my department even before earning my doctoral degree. Shortly after, during a one-year stay at MIT in Boston through a Fulbright Fellowship, I met Robert Langer, a life-long mentor who opened the door for me into biomedical engineering, a fascinating area that I have pursued ever since. These were transformative experiences for which I am most grateful. Today I know that being in academia is a lifestyle, not a job; our door is never closed, our work is never done, science is awesome, and we get to mentor the young talent.

Over the last fifteen years, it has been most gratifying to be a part of the intellectually rich, collaborative and incredibly supportive environment at Columbia University. I am fortunate to work with brilliant colleagues from a number of different disciplines with whom I share a passion for science and its translation into new and effective medical technologies.

My laboratory is diligently working on regenerating our tissues and organs lost to injury or disease, including bones, hearts, and lungs. The concept is really simple: we “instruct” the stem cells to build tissues by using bioengineering tools. Using the same principle, we are also developing “organs on a chip” platforms that allow us to model human physiology, study pathological conditions such as heart disease or cancer, and test drugs in an individualized manner. As we are entering the era of personalized medicine enabled by advances in science and technology, this is the best time ever to be a biomedical engineer and help us all live a longer and better life.

Finally, my greatest successes are my trainees to whom I owe this honor, along with my family. Among over 150 students and postdoctoral fellows I have mentored, many are now at the most prestigious universities all around the world. It has been the absolutely best part of my job to help them become the most they can be, secure jobs they are passionate about, and serve as examples of what all is possible if you love what you do and try really hard.

And none of this would ever be possible without my amazing family: Branko, Stasha, and Vanessa, and our grandchildren Marina, Danilo and Milan.

Again, thank you so much for this incredible honor.

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic