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Homegrown Scholar

A nearly native Las Vegan, Nemanja Novakovic had planned to leave Nevada when it came time for college. But that was before he discovered his academic dreams could be fulfilled at UNLV.

People  |  Mar 2, 2016  |  By Shane Bevell
Nemanja Novokovic

Nemanja Novokovic works in a UNLV life sciences lab. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services)

Since middle school, Nemanja Novakovic had dreamed of attending UCLA, intrigued by its reputation for academics and research. But that was before he visited UNLV and found out what his hometown university had to offer him.

Novakovic, who moved to Las Vegas as a toddler when his parents left their native Sarajevo as war refugees, knew he wanted to pursue a career in medicine and he was interested in research. As a senior in high school, he had a chance to meet with some of UNLV’s professors. 

Physics professor Michael Pravica, Novakovic said, “was very kind and showed me his research lab. The most advanced scientific instrument in high school could not compare with what I was being shown.

“We also discussed scientific theory, which was a very engaging experience because it was related to what I learned in my high school physics class, yet complex enough to let me know that I would enjoy expanding my scientific knowledge at UNLV.” 

He also met with Joseph Nika, director of pre-health programs. “Dr. Nika showed me that UNLV was great at getting its students into medical school if they were willing to put in the necessary time and work.

“I blinked and he outlined my next four years, including what classes to take and when, when to do research and volunteer work, when to take the MCAT, how to prepare for a medical school interview, and much more,” Novakovic said.

Good Choice

After meeting with Nika, Novakovic turned down UCLA’s admissions offer. Liking what he had found at UNLV and not wanting to accumulate massive debt for his undergraduate education, the 2013 Sierra Vista High School valedictorian decided to attend UNLV, which offered him a valedictorian scholarship.

Now a junior, Novakovic says he knows he made the right decision.

Beginning his UNLV career as a biochemistry major, he was awarded the Harold and Mayme Stocker Scholarship during his sophomore year. That meant he didn’t have to get a job and was instead able to focus on his undergraduate research. The Honors College student also was awarded the Linfa R. Wright and Bennett Family Honors scholarships.

He added a second major in biology — with a concentration in cell and molecular biology — to his academic plate to aid in his research in life sciences professor Martin Schiller’s lab. 

Great Research Opportunities

“My educational experience at UNLV has been much more than I thought it would be,” he said. “UNLV has excellent research opportunities for undergraduate students and the faculty are so inspirational.

“I had a friend at an institution in California who told me it was difficult for him to get a research position because the school required more classes before getting into a lab. In contrast, I joined Dr. Schiller’s lab at the end of my first semester as a freshman.”

His first assignment for Schiller was doing annotations on HIV and looking at how certain drugs interact with HIV. He later paired with a graduate student to do some experimental lab work. He since has co-authored two papers that have been published in scientific journals.

And a Future

Novakovic wants to be a brain surgeon. “I am curious about a lot of things,” he said. “We know a lot about the brain but there is still so much more to understand.” Eventually, he would like to conduct research involving the brain.

He plans to start medical school in the fall of 2017 and when he does, Novakovic said, “I would love to go to UNLV’s medical school. I think it would be great if I stayed in Las Vegas my entire life, making something of my educational experiences here.”