How Olympian 'underdog' Professor Vera Ignjatovic achieved her goals

Serbian-born Professor Vera Ignjatovic is the Group Leader of Haematology Research at Murdoch Children's Research Institute and a former handball player who represented Australia at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. A specialist in the field of paediatric thrombosis, Professor Ignjatovic is also an advocate for diversity, inclusion and gender equality, is on the Board of Toyota Community Foundation Australia and a member of the Women in Science Parkville Precinct (WiSPP) committee.

You moved to Australia from Serbia when you were 13, went to university at 16 and were an Olympian in your 20s.  You describe yourself as an underdog. Is that what drives you?

I've had quite a few changes in my life. The biggest was moving to Australia with my family. We didn't know the language. While tough, it allowed my family to bond. But I have always felt like I’ve had to ‘catch up’, whether the language or age difference. Socially it was difficult for me to interact at university as I couldn’t go out, so instead sport was my outlet.

In Serbia I played handball but when I came here I didn't know handball existed so I played basketball. A friend found out about a handball team in Carlton. We went to a training session and the goalkeeper rolled her ankle so I offered to step in. Within two weeks of being goalkeeper I was asked to train with the Australian team.

Even while representing Australia, we were amateurs playing with professionals - we were the underdogs. We weren't expected to win.

But we were still training and trying to compete to the same level as everyone else. And that has taught me that sometimes it's not just about whether you win. Sometimes it's about participating and the mission that you have towards a certain activity.

That determination and passion has influenced the way in which I work and live my life. Whether it's chasing research funding, doing medical research and contributing to help improve the lives of children or my passion for team sport and teamwork. 

What was it like competing in the Sydney2000 Olympics as a goalkeeper with the Women’s Handball team?

It was very exciting, and that was a very special part of my life. We were training for the Olympics for four years, all the while hoping we don't get injured and that we make the team. 

In Sydney there was a special energy. Walking into the stadium with 110,000 people screaming from the top of their lungs was pretty crazy. We were all screaming as well. I had my family there which was quite special.

At the same time, after you finish an event like that - for people that are not professional athletes (most Olympians are not) you just go back to your normal life. There's this huge anticlimax that not many people speak about. A lot of us were left wondering: what happens next?  That's where luckily I found my job at Murdoch Children’s Research Centre, and that created a new focus for me in my life.

How do you handle the responsibility of being a goalie, and how does this relate to your professional life?

Being a goalkeeper can be a lonely position which carries high responsibility and not many people want to be in that position. 

In handball we get a lot of goals but sometimes we have to accept responsibility - sometimes it is the goalkeeper's fault. If is it my fault, if I’ve stumbled for example, I have never had a problem saying: “OK, this one is on me”. But sometimes it's a combination of things and then, if you’re part of a good team, then you won’t feel like it is your fault.

I think that that's also helped me in the  working scenario, to go: “Hey, I'm sorry - this is on me, I’ve made a mistake”. And it’s also teaching the next generations that it's OK to make mistakes and not be paralyzed by them. We all make mistakes, then move on. We say: “Let’s keep going and what have we learned?”

Has your Olympics experience helped in your professional life?

Definitely. As a team, we didn't expect to win and no-one expected us to win anything but yet we competed. We gave everything, and in one of the games we played against the World Champions at the time - Norway - they only beat us by 10 goals. For an amateur team to lose by that small a margin it was like two professional teams playing each other. Even at halftime we thought we were on top of the World. We lost by ten goals and we celebrated it.

What it taught me is the importance of participation. Just like the day-to-day joy that people get out of the work that they do.

Tell us a little about your research

I am Group Leader of Haematology Research at Murdoch Children's Research Institute. Our research focus is on the effects of anticoagulants on children and looks at children who have bleeding and clotting complications, for example, kids on heart lung machines or that undergo bypass surgery.  

A lot of the work that I've done, across multiple hospitals in Melbourne, has focused on defining what is normal for children, so that we can then appropriately diagnose them. When you get blood test results, there are ‘reference values’ which help determine if the results are ‘normal’. But we don’t know what is ‘normal’ for children, so their blood tests are compared with adults. Children are actually inherently very different to adults, not just in size, but their insides are very different. So comparing their results to the adults sometimes leads to misdiagnosis.  It’s definitely rewarding, especially now I have children of my own and when they have a blood test I can say, ‘ I've contributed to this.’

And how did you get involved with Boards? 

I have been fortunate to be a member of different committees at my work and within the Parkville Precinct where a lot of medical research is concentrated in Melbourne. That allowed me to then be involved in the Australian Society of Medical Research as a Director.

I recently became a Director of the Toyota Community Foundation Australia, which is very interesting, because it's the first external role to Toyota. It is forward thinking that they decided they should have someone with STEMM experience, to guide and advise them, and they particularly wanted to have a woman.

I’m very happy to be able to contribute to decision making around the way funding can be invested for educational programs in the STEMM fields which are really important in terms of not just the current jobs, but future jobs too. 

How has Women on Boards helped you?

Women on Boards is really special. In that it has given me an opportunity to meet a lot of women in similar scenarios. Women who are more successful than me when it comes to Boards. It has given me the avenue to contact them, to reach out, to ask for advice, and it's absolutely fantastic.

I also completed the board CV process and that helped me a lot and prepared me for the Toyota interviews.

How do you manage your time between work, sport, family and Boards?

I'm a solo mom of twin six-year-old girls so I’m very busy. My family helps a lot but I've always been really organized. For me, it is about having systems and habits in place. I have to-do lists that I use very actively - they're sitting right next to me all the time.

What are your tips for other people considering joining a Board?

I think in terms of juggling and juggling responsibilities, I think it's always easier if people are working on something that they're passionate about. It’s not difficult spending the time, even at 11 o'clock at night, reading paperwork, if it’s something you’re passionate about.

I choose to do what I do , because I absolutely love it. While it’s challenging, at the same time, it's highly rewarding. It’s a balance.

Some people have a lot of money and job security, but they don't necessarily have the passion -  or they can't actually see that their job is making an impact in society. For me, it's the other way around. The money isn't stable but I have a very high passion for what I do. It doesn't feel like work, it just feels like my life.

Secondly, it always takes stepping out of the comfort zone to actually reach the next level or to progress. If people are thinking about always remaining in the comfort zone, these opportunities will not come their way. If you take one step, something will come towards you but you have to make the first move.

Find Professor Vera Ignjatovic on LinkedIn