World-renowned UF Health biochemistry researcher passes away
Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D., passed away March 3 at age 57
March 3, 2021 — University of Florida Health biochemistry professor Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D., whose world-renowned work on the detailed structure of viruses led to advances in gene therapy treatments for different diseases, died Wednesday at her home near Gainesville of the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She was 57.
Agbandje-McKenna’s work with the small, infectious particles had a worldwide impact, allowing other scientists to be more precise in their use of viruses for therapeutics. She was instrumental in advancing the use of the adeno-associated virus, or AAV, as a leading method for gene delivery to treat a variety of human diseases. In addition to her scientific work, she was an avid mentor for students.
“Joining the lab of Dr. Mavis Agbandje-McKenna was one of the best decisions of my life,” said Lawrence Tartaglia, Ph.D. ’13, a Lehigh University teacher and former mentee of Agbandje-McKenna, in an interview last year. “She embodies everything that is right in a human being, not just a scientist. I learned from her 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. I feel it’s my duty to educate our next generation of young scientists in the same fashion in which she mentored me.”
For funeral service details and information on how you can contribute to a scholarship fund in Dr. Agbandje-McKenna’s name, visit the department of biochemistry and molecular biology website.
If you would like to share an anecdote with the UF community or leave a tribute to Dr. Agbandje-McKenna, please fill out the following form. Submissions will be displayed on this page.
Remembering Dr. Mavis Agbandje-McKenna
“I fondly recall Mavis’ 2016 College of Medicine Convocation address to the PhD graduates. Mavis cautioned the graduates to ‘be kind to everyone: colleagues, staff, students,’ and that all of these people played a vital part in the students’ journey. This advice had meaning because Mavis exemplified this kindness in her own life. Mavis truly was a kind and wonderful person. Her legacy reaches far beyond her many research accomplishments and is evident in the lives of those she impacted, myself included.”
— Brett Looney
Program coordinator for the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences
“Mavis was one of our most brilliant and trailblazing scientists at the University of Florida and even though she didn’t work directly with neurodegenerative diseases, her passing from ALS is a reminder of the work we must do to help people suffering from these types of diseases. I send my condolences to her family and her husband, Rob.”
— Todd Golde M.D., Ph.D.
Director of the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida
“Although I never directly worked with Mavis, she was one of the people who made my days in grad school at the Brain Institute brighter with her kindness, smile and contagious, beautiful laugh. She was brilliant, and my classmates whom she mentored adored her and spoke fondly of her. I am very sorry for your loss, Dr. Rob McKenna and family.”
— Iman Al-Naggar, Ph.D. ’08
Postdoctoral fellow at UConn Health
“I was not a direct student of Dr. Mavis McKenna but through our interactions in our biweekly journal clubs and faculty presentation meetings, Dr. McKenna was SUCH a powerful role model to me. As the only Black female professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology concentration in the UF College of Medicine graduate program, she demonstrated with unparalleled grace that an extraordinarily successful scientist can look just like me. She was one of the driving forces that allowed me to forge my own path toward a successful career in academia and her inspiration is something that I vow to pass on to future generations. The UF College of Medicine lost a hero and she will be forever loved and missed.”
— Joeva Barrow, Ph.D. ’13, R.D.
Assistant professor at Cornell University
“Mavis was the colleague we should all be. Generous with her time and intellect, a dedicated mentor to her students, and engaged in making our department better in every aspect. I miss her already.”
— Brian Cain, Ph.D.
Professor in the UF Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
“All that I am is thanks to Mavis and Rob. Being their student opened doors for us that we would have never managed to find. Mavis would expect us all to work extremely hard but she would work even harder for us. We wear our ‘McKenna University’ T-shirts in pride knowing that she will live on in us, as we live up to her teachings in our careers.”
— Bala Venkatakrishnan, Ph.D. ’12
Senior scientist at Novozymes
“I remember deciding to join the University of Florida to pursue my Ph.D. because I had met Mavis during my interview. Her science and personality instantly clicked with me, and I told her, ‘I’m only coming to UF if you let me join your lab.’ On my first day, I went straight to her office and she said, ‘You weren’t kidding,’ accompanied by her classic infectious, beautiful smile. For the next five or so years, that smile became a constant in my life. She was a great mentor, a terrific scientist tackling some challenging questions, undaunted, determined and yet so humble. At conferences, everyone knew Mavis and wanted to talk to her — from students of other labs to collaborators. She was the first and last one to leave social/networking events. Yet she was responding to my weekly reports at 5 a.m. She was inspirational. She took the time to get to know us personally. She knew not to deal with Rob, Sean and myself when Man U games didn’t go our way. She and Rob not only had profound impact on my scientific career but also adopted me into their beautiful McKenna family. This loving and supportive family is part of her legacy. Her diligent mentorship has molded me into the scientist I am today for which I am deeply grateful. During my time in her lab and over the years, I realized I think like her, write like her, edit like her, mentor my own students like her, build a social network like her and began to make a difference just like her. I understand that I am an extension of her, and this comes with great pride and responsibility. I hope to endeavor the path ahead of me with the same courage, dedication and hardwork as she put in each day, even when things got difficult. I (and the McKenna family) will miss her immensely but she is forever in our hearts.”
— Shweta Kailasan, Ph.D. ’15
Principal scientist at Integrated Biotherapeutics Inc.
“When Mavis came to Florida, it was luckiest thing that ever happened to me. Mavis and I collaborated and had joint grants for close to twenty years. She was so smart. And so cheerful. Problems seemed to melt away after a few minutes with her. I loved her and will miss her very much.”
— Nicholas Muzyczka, Ph.D.
Eminent scholar emeritus, UF department of molecular genetics and microbiology
“Mavis was the kindest, funniest and most generous colleague I have ever had. There is nothing she would not do for a friend. She was such a serious and productive scientist but that never stopped her from sharing her ‘hot-off-the-press’ results with others in the name of science. She will be sorely missed by our whole family.”
— Thomas Smith, Ph.D.
Professor, University of Texas Medical Branch
“Nigerians in North Florida are sad that one of theirs, Dr. Agbandje-McKenna, has died. We are grateful for your contribution to the advancement of humanity and are proud of you. At 57, you still had a lot to contribute; but who can question the decision of our heavenly Father? May your earthly family be consoled. Rest in peace, Professor.”
— Tunga Lergo, Ph.D.
Nigerian Community of Gainesville
“Mavis was a force of nature with an infectious laugh and a passion for science. It’s no wonder people were always drawn to her. After only a few minutes of speaking with her, I was absolutely convinced that I needed to join the Agbandje-McKenna Lab and learn everything I could about AAV. Four of us joined Mavis’ group that year, and we soon realized that Rob’s lab came as part of the package deal — suddenly we weren’t alone on the long grad school journey ahead but became part of the McKenna family. As with many families, we were loud and boisterous, we celebrated our birthdays and achievements together, and we always had each other’s backs. The McKenna lab family had a lot of fun together, whether it was discussing data in lab meetings, going on long-haul road trips and hitting the dance floor at conferences, or playing science Pictionary at the holiday parties. Working as a team, Mavis and Rob took on the immense task of teaching us the ins and outs of structural biology; with their steady guidance, and a whole lot of patience, they gradually developed us into scientists. Mavis was generous with her students and took the time to review our presentations and papers to provide constructive feedback, and on one crazy night she even stayed up with me until 5 a.m. to help process late breaking cryo-EM data for my defense. From my time in the lab, Mavis taught me what it means to be a good mentor and teacher, and a strong leader; her excitement for the science inspired me to continue working on AAV to help bring gene therapy treatments into reality for patients. I am thankful she took a chance on me back then and am grateful that I had the opportunity to work with her and become part of the McKenna Lab family. She will forever be missed by the many people whose lives she touched, but her memories and legacy will live on through us and our students.”
— Lauren Drouin, Ph.D. ’13
Associate director, LogicBio Therapeutics