Luca Lovrečić – Bellabeat

Inspirational Women interview with Dr. Luca Lovrečić

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Assist. Prof. Luca Lovrecic, MD, PhD is a Specialist of Laboratory Medical Genetics and an Assistant Professor in Human Genetics at the Medical Faculty of University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She’s currently also employed as the Head of Molecular cytogenetic laboratory at the Clinical Institute of Medical Genetics. Besides holding a PhD and docentship in medicine, Luca has also graduated with a bachelor of Science in Biology and received several awards and scholarships; including research and professional training at the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease and Harvard Medical School.

I met Luca about 6 years ago when she was pregnant with her 3rd child. At the time, I was working on a remote patient monitoring system and Luca was kind enough to help us test it. What better person to discuss and test health tracking technology designed for women with than the woman who’s an extremely successful doctor and a mother at the same time?! I’ve met with her again a couple of days ago and she is still her usual impressive self.

As her resume implies, Luca is a true power woman. We caught her full of energy, and with a smile from ear to ear, at the hospital where she works. You could see at first glance, from the way she glows with confidence, that she is someone who is on top of everything - in her career and personal life. However, even though she has built an impressive career in a field as demanding as medical genetics, she remains extremely humble and down to earth. She’s an epitome of a person that inspires.

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INTERVIEW

1. Dr. Luca, when one reads through your CV and learns about all of your accomplishments, it’s almost impossible to believe how young you are. Even less so when one learns that besides already having an extremely successful career, you’re also a mother of 3. You’re currently an assistant professor at a University in Ljubljana and practice diagnostic and research in rare genetic diseases. Can you tell us more about what you do and what drives you on your professional path?

I am lucky enough to have found my true inspiration in medical genetics. Despite the fact that this is my “job” I find constant satisfaction and motivation in my day-to-day work. It is my profession, my passion and my hobby.

As a Clinical Geneticist, I see patients that are at risk of having genetic diseases. These might be pregnant women if there is an ultrasound anomaly discovered in the fetus, children if their development is not going according to expected milestones or they have congenital anomalies, or adults with signs and symptoms that might have genetic etiology. As a Laboratory Geneticist I manage the genetic laboratory on a daily basis - genetic tests help us identify the real cause of genetic disease and thereby help families/patients with optimal disease prognosis, monitoring, and support, as well as risk evaluation for other family members. In addition, we share our knowledge with medical students, being the biggest genetic center in Slovenia.

2. Parenthood is something that is rarely mentioned when discussing career paths with men, while with women, it’s something that is brought up all the time. It’s unfair and I would prefer it to be brought up more when talking to men, rather than discussed less when talking to women. Personal life plans, especially parenthood, can obviously influence career paths in both men and women. Or the other way around. Either way, since there’s really no right or wrong answers out there, as a young woman and a professional, I find support in conversations like this when facing important life decisions. Luca, you seem to have succeeded in having it all. Did you ever feel like you had to decide between your career or personal aspirations / plans? Did you ever even contemplate questions like this? How do you see the position of women in demanding fields such as yours?

I make such decisions or have such doubts every day. And I really mean every day. I would prefer to stay at work most days, because it gives me satisfaction and I have so many plans and ideas...on the other hand, parenthood for me is something I cannot describe with words. It is beyond my vocabulary. Three children, who are now 6, 9 and 10 years old, and I grow with them every day. They are constant mirrors of things that I should change in the way I live and think. We, “grownups”, are so distant from our true self, with constant rushing, planning and deadlines, etc. We have long forgotten how to live in the here and now. Children live in the moment and this is something that I learn every day. We really only have “now” and life becomes quite simple once we realize that. The position of women?

It is hard to tell, I don’t think there is a unique answer to this. I believe that if you do things with passion and from your heart, sincerely, and focus on positive aspects, then you can find your true balance and you will have a rewarding career. Nevertheless, I do feel frustrated sometimes, because no matter how equal we try to be (women and men), the female is always more involved in housekeeping and children upbringing, so a lot of the times I put my career on hold. But let’s be objective - what is at the very heart of this problem? I believe that we, women, ourselves are too demanding and trying to be perfect all the time in all aspects. As for me, I don’t want to be equal to male colleagues. I prefer being a woman, being able to multitask, being strong and independent, but in my core, warm and soft at the same time. And also, I believe that the best teams combine female and male views.

3. Research seems to be a big part of your work. Browsing through the internet I was able to find 54 published items and considering your title, there may be more. Knowing from my own mother who is also a doctor, she tends to bring her work home all the time, working on her articles in the evenings or over the weekends. Do you do the same? How important is work-life balance to you?

I used to do so, before I had children. And I enjoyed it. I have a great husband and we do share most of the family-related challenges equally. Two days a week I stay longer at work and I manage to clear my desk efficiently. Work-life balance is the most important challenge that I face most of the time, but so far I feel I manage it quite ok. I believe that this balance is crucial for maintaining physical, mental and psychological health.

We have long forgotten how to live in the here and now.Children live in the moment and this is something that I learn every day. We really only have “now” and life becomes quite simple once we realize that.

We have long forgotten how to live in the here and now. Children live in the moment and this is something that I learn every day. We really only have “now” and life becomes quite simple once we realize that.

4. With a demanding career and a family to take care of, do you ever make sure you take some time just for yourself? Do you think “me-time” is important?

Yes. This is crucial for maintaining physical, mental and psychological health, as well. In my experience, the more stress (positive and negative) I have at work or with family, the more I need some time on my own. I regularly practice hot yoga which helps me focus and energize my inner me. I also take long walks in the woods. And last, but not least, together with my 3 female friends, successful women as well, we take some time off together twice a year.

5. You work in the field of human genetics. It might be a banal question for you but how big of a role does our genetic predisposition play in the way we age? Can we influence how we age at all and how?

Yes and yes. There is definitely a genetic predisposition for various aspects of aging and adult-onset diseases of modern time. But there is so much we can change within the limits of this predisposition. General principle of healthy lifestyle applies to all and I believe that if we practice it, we will make the most out of our predefined limits.

6. A number of studies have linked stress with shorter telomeres, a chromosome component that's been associated with cellular aging and risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It is also speculated that chronic stress can influence epigenetic changes in humans which affect behaviour and mood. That’s especially frightening because stress has become a constant of the modern lifestyle. Can you tell us more about the risk stress poses from your point of view, and it’s connection to disease development?

What a coincidence - we are just starting a study on telomere length at our department. Telomeres are specialised structures at the end of chromosomes, that stabilize them and prevent DNA damage. In addition, telomerase is an enzyme, that can lengthen the telomeres, if it is active enough. Numerous studies have tried to link telomere length and telomerase activity with psychological stress, lifestyle factors and mood disorders, but the results are not always consistent. Nevertheless, many studies show, as you mentioned, that chronic psychological stress is related to shortened telomeres, which in turn are markers of ageing and disease. It has been shown that healthy lifestyle increases telomere length. Specifically, this has been linked to the Mediterranean diet, meditation and exercise. I believe that chronic stress can be successfully controlled for a limited time, and that this is very individual and related to our inner coping mechanisms and character. Long-term stress eventually results in disease, if we don’t balance it with sufficient relaxation, time-off, or whatever it is, that works for a person.

7. As a doctor, you’re obviously very well aware of how we can improve our own health and wellness. What are some of the healthy habits you find important and why?

I believe that a little bit of everything is of paramount importance. Being too focused on a healthy lifestyle and healthy choices can be overwhelming and in the long-term represents stress itself. :) Whatever we do, we should not feel guilty about it, because guilt is one of the most powerful feelings and it is hard to overcome it. So, if we take some time out of our regular exercise or we have a day full of chocolate and icecream, we should feel good about it, feeling blessed that we can afford it and we should do it with positive vibes. What I try to do, is to get enough sleep every night, to get and give at least 5 hugs a day, to eat home cooked meals as much as possible and to increase my heart rate through sports a few times a week.

8. As a mother of 3 and a doctor, what healthy habits or health knowledge are, in your opinion, important to instill on children while they’re still young and why? 8. As a mother of 3 and a doctor, what healthy habits or health knowledge are, in your opinion, important to instill on children while they’re still young and why?

Children will try to imitate parents, especially younger children, before they become teenagers. Parents should be a role model. As for my family - we do a lot of things together and since some habits are part of their life from the start, they take them for granted. At least for now. We spend a lot of time actively, outside, regardless of weather and we eat a lot of local food. We also talk about healthy choices (food, sports, individual personal space). And we dance a lot… like nobody's watching. :)

9. You told me you’re into hot yoga. How often do you practice? Can you tell us why you like it?

I practice hot yoga two times per week. It is yoga that is practiced in a heated space. I like it because it takes all of me to practice, by which I mean, body and soul. It is quite intensive, so you need to focus and really exercise, but at the same time, breathing is very important, so it is sort of meditation, as well. It stretches, strengthens and lengthens every muscle, ligament, tendon and joint in my body. And it is completely “my-time”.

10. How do you see your life changing in the next 10 years, what would you still like to achieve? How much do you think about your health and well-being when planning for the future?

As I mentioned, I try to do something beneficial for my body and soul every day. If it is only 5 minutes of meditation, it is better than nothing. I really believe that the health of my body and soul is the biggest asset that I have. Now and for the future.

I don’t make big plans. I haven’t planned any of my previous achievements neither. I go with the flow and enjoy every moment of it. When a new idea or situation comes my way, I follow it, if I feel like it. I don’t actively search for opportunities. Of course I get frustrated or feel not good enough sometimes, but I try to re-set my mind and take it as a challenge. Day by day.

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