Aug. 13, 2020 — A handful of years may have passed since Lawrence Tartaglia, Ph.D. ’13, received his doctoral degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the UF College of Medicine, but he continues to effuse about the overflowing sense of pride and belonging he gained from those days spent studying adeno-associated viruses in the McKenna Laboratory.
“I now bleed orange and blue and will for life,” says Tartaglia, who currently teaches biology and genetics to future scientists at Lehigh University, a private research school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Joining the lab of Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D., was one of the best decisions of my life, second to marrying my wonderful wife, Linnan. Dr. Mavis embodies everything that is right in a human being, not just a scientist. She is nurturing, caring but also demanding. She created a familial atmosphere in her lab where everyone had an equal voice.”
Under the careful, devoted mentorship of McKenna, director of the UF Center for Structural Biology, Tartaglia reconstructed a three-dimensional structure of adeno-associated virus serotype 2 as it attaches to host cell receptors and immune system molecules, gleaning information about the virus’s biology to create more efficacious gene therapy treatments. From McKenna, he learned more than biology, however; he learned the art of educating others.
“I learned from Dr. McKenna that, as an educator, you should be willing to put everything you have into your students’ well-being and academic success. During my late-night experiments in her lab, she would immediately respond to my questions emailed to her at midnight and beyond. She would meet me on Saturdays to teach me that latest and greatest software for our structural studies,” he says. “I feel it’s my duty to educate our next generation of young scientists in the same fashion in which she mentored me.”
In his biology and genetics classes at Lehigh, Tartaglia leads games of biology-themed Jeopardy! and raps lyrical verses to explain learning objectives, all with the goal of helping his students find the science that’s omnipresent in the world around them.
“I show my students that biology and science is everywhere they look,” he says. “From knowing the environmental impacts of using too much fertilizer, like the toxic algae in The Everglades, to having the ability to read their grandparents’ blood work report and identify an anomaly that the physician may have missed, the more informed my students are, the more they can change the world.”
Tartaglia’s own boyhood sense of wonder about the unique abilities for survival exhibited by exotic animals, paired with a penchant for giving his family his own weather reports while the news station meteorologist was muted, blossomed into a career path after he joined a molecular biology research lab that studied the Alaskan ice worm while an undergraduate at Rutgers University.
“I had an opportunity to trek across Alaskan glaciers in pursuit of these organisms,” he recalls. “After that it was over — I was hooked. I was a scientist for life.”
After graduating from the UF College of Medicine, Tartaglia completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Medical School Center for Virology and Vaccine Research. There, he developed vaccines against Zika virus, HIV and other pathogens and co-developed an adeno-associated virus gene therapy platform.
“I had a small role in helping to develop the world’s first Zika virus vaccine that showed efficacy in non-human primates,” he says. “It was really an amazing experience watching everything come to fruition. Everything happened at a rapid pace and, in only a few short months, our lab was able to show 100% protection against the virus in mouse models and pre-clinical non-human primate models. The work set the stage for clinical investigation and showed that a vaccine for humans was possible.”
Though his studies and career have taken him across the globe, there’s one geographical location that Tartaglia frequently returns to, in body and mind: Gainesville, Florida. Tartaglia proposed to his wife, Linnan, by composing a poem full of the sights and sounds of the University of Florida, and he scours online forums to keep up to date with UF athletes and academics. For this Gator Ph.D. graduate who recalls the “familial” feel of the McKenna Laboratory where he once spent endless days and nights, there’s no place like home.