In Memoriam: Mary Zavanelli (1955 - 2017)

To: UC Santa Cruz Community

From: Bill Saxton, Chair of Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology, and Colleagues

Mary Zavanelli
Mary Zavanelli with a Weddell seal in Antarctica. (Photo by Dan Costa)

We are sad to share the news of the passing of Mary Zavanelli, an extraordinary person and one of our department's most outstanding teachers. Mary died peacefully on February 18, surrounded by family and friends, after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disorder that steals one's ability to move, but leaves the mind clear.

A UCSC alumna, Mary came to UC Santa Cruz for graduate school after earning a B.A. in biochemistry at UC San Diego. She earned her Ph.D. in biology in 1991, working with Manny Ares on RNA splicing. She carried out postdoctoral research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and then returned to UC Santa Cruz to work as a researcher with Clifton Poodry. She began teaching for the biology department in 1995 and continued for 21 years as a full-time lecturer, continuing her teaching with great courage and good humor even after the progression of ALS put her in a wheelchair.

Mary taught some of UCSC's largest biology courses, including Female Physiology and Biology of AIDS, as well as many upper division lab courses. Her teaching was highly regarded by her students, many of whom sent heartfelt messages when they heard she was ill. It's clear she had a profound impact on the lives of her students, inspiring many to pursue careers in healthcare.

In addition to her teaching, Mary maintained an interest in research, publishing work on the diving physiology of marine mammals in collaboration with Terrie Williams, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Her research interests took her to all seven continents, including Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands, Africa, and Australia.

Mary also had a long run as a committed athlete, from studying martial arts in graduate school to competing in Ironman triathlons. She entered 15 Ironman-length triathlons, completing all but two. She also ran a number of marathons, including a 2011 half-marathon in Antarctica.

Mary is survived by her husband, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Daniel Costa, her father William Zavanelli, brother Tony, and sisters Terrie and Barbara. A memorial service is being planned.

Mary's family is forming an endowment to be named in her honor and will match gifts up to $25,000. Mary had requested that the fund be used to support undergraduate research in the health sciences. The Mary Zavanelli Fund will be among the projects accepting donations on UCSC Giving Day on Wednesday, March 8. For more information about the fund, contact Abbi Davis in the Physical & Biological Sciences Development Office at