Celebrating a mentor
College honors faculty members with new award named for the late Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, PhD
Antonette Bennett, PhD ’09, recalls stepping into the McKenna lab for the first time as a student in 2004.
“Everybody was happy, music was playing, everything was clean and organized, people loved what they were doing and they enjoyed being with each other,” she says. “And Dr. Mavis was the lab mom. She really set the course for my career.”
Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, PhD, a UF College of Medicine professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology and the director of the Center for Structural Biology, dedicated 32 years to advancing discoveries in adeno-associated viruses, or AAV, and other parvoviruses at UF before passing away in 2021. In addition to being a globally recognized parvovirus researcher, she demonstrated an unwavering commitment to training the next generation of scientists.
Her impact as a mentor was recently honored with a new award, presented to a faculty member for the first time during the College of Medicine Research Day in April: the Dr. Mavis Agbandje-McKenna Distinguished Research Mentoring Award. Sara Burke, PhD, an associate professor of neuroscience and the associate director of UF’s Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory, received the inaugural accolade.
“I am profoundly honored to receive this award,” Burke says. “Training new scholars and researchers is one of the reasons I love being a neuroscientist. I have had supportive mentors at every stage of my career, including now as an associate professor. I am exhilarated that I am paying that forward, and I will strive to live up to Dr. Agbandje-McKenna’s legacy of mentoring excellence.”
Over the past three decades, Agbandje-McKenna and her husband, Rob McKenna, PhD, also a UF professor in the department biochemistry and molecular biology, worked with trainees of every level, from high school students to undergraduates and graduate students to postdoctoral researchers, to uncover new scientific findings that would change the scope of gene therapy.
Bennett, now an assistant scientist in the UF department of biochemistry and molecular biology, says the lab members took trips together and stayed in touch even after moving on from the lab.
“We called ourselves the McKennites because once you’re part of this family, you’re stuck,” she says with a laugh. “And I’m so grateful for this whole group of people.”
Kenneth Berns, MD, PhD, a UF distinguished emeritus professor in the department of molecular genetics and microbiology and former dean of the College of Medicine, says recruiting Agbandje-McKenna and McKenna to the university helped make UF into the AAV research powerhouse it is today.
“In very short order, their laboratory was a beehive of activity,” he says. “She had a large number of undergraduate students working in her lab, and they were doing serious research, writing papers as senior authors that were published in significant journals, which I think says a lot about Mavis as a mentor.”
Nicholas Muzyczka, PhD, an emeritus scholar in the UF department of molecular genetics and microbiology who frequently collaborated with Agbandje-McKenna, says she “owned” single-stranded virus structural biology.
“She was essentially a national resource,” he says. “If you wanted a structural biologist who could tell you about AAV and other parvoviruses, she was the go-to person, crystalizing it or doing cryomicroscopy on these viruses.”
He says her creativity in the lab, as well as her kindness and infectious smile, made it enjoyable to work with her.
“Immediately when she saw you, she would go, ‘Hi, I was just thinking about you!’” he says. “She couldn’t possibly have been just thinking about me every time I showed up, but that’s the way she made you feel, like you were the most special person.”