Baker Institute for Animal Health


Daversa Family Scholarship

The Daversa Family Scholarship Fund was created to memorialize Rayne, a seven year-old German Shepherd who succumbed to a massive stroke in July 2007. Maria Daversa and her husband David Gulley learned of the Baker Institute after their veterinarian made a gift in Rayne's memory through the Baker Clinic Memorial Giving Fund. A voracious learner, Daversa began investigating and found that the mission of the Institute matched her own sentiments. Daversa and Gulley decided to pay tribute to Rayne by creating an endowed scholarship at the Institute to fund the pursuit of knowledge for scientists-in-training. 

Congratulations to the 2021 Daversa Family Scholarship Award Winner 

Robert Lopez Astacio, Ph.D. candidate in the Parrish Lab is the recipient
of the 2021 Daversa Family Scholarship.

 Robert López-Astacio, a PhD student in the lab of Dr. Colin Parrish, is the recipient of this year's Daversa Family Scholarship. The award will help López-Astacio complete his research on the origins and significance of parvovirus escape mutants – new variants that have evolved to evade the host's immune system.

When López-Astacio began his graduate research at the Baker Institute in 2017, he had no idea that the topic of viral evolution would be on the minds of people worldwide, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Robert grew up in Puerto Rico and started to worked on viruses while an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico – Ponce at a time when there were important infections, including dengue, Chikungunya and Zika viruses," said Parrish, the John M. Olin Professor of Virology. "His work is highly relevant to the changes seen in the SARS CoV-2 and influenza viruses, which have emerged and evolved in humans." 

López-Astacio's research has shown that when canine parvovirus encounters neutralizing antibodies, it accumulates mutations that result in tiny changes to its protein shell. These changes make the virus invisible to antibodies but still allow it to interact with the receptor it needs to enter the host cell to replicate. Some of the mutations identified in his model system have arisen in wild parvovirus as natural variants, connecting his experimental findings to the evolution of the virus in nature. "We are now understanding natural processes that may be relevant to other viruses, including in the current pandemic," said López-Astacio.

The Daversa Family Scholarship Fund was established by Maria Daversa and her husband David Gulley and in memory of their beloved German Shepherd Rayne, who died in 2007. The award will support the next-generation sequencing López-Astacio uses to identify new mutations in the parvovirus genome, and the advanced microscopy techniques being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Susan Hafenstein from Penn State University, that show the interaction of canine parvovirus with the antibodies.

After completing his degree, López-Astacio plans to return to Puerto Rico to teach at the university level and collaborate with industry on novel antibody therapies, antivirals and vaccines. As a first-generation college and PhD student, he is also excited to help students from underrepresented groups gain lab experience and explore careers in science. "I want to continue doing outreach to attract people from disadvantaged backgrounds, Latino people and Puerto Ricans to STEM careers."

In October 2021, López-Astacio gave an invited talk to the Baker Institute Advisory Council on his work. He also received a travel award at the Cornell University Biomedical and Biological Sciences Symposium to present this work at the upcoming American Society for Virology meeting and the International Parvovirus Workshop.

"Every time I make a presentation, meet new people or get new scholarships, it's validating that we're also capable of doing this," he said. "That now we're opening doors — not only for myself but also for others coming behind me."

Maria Daversa and David Gulley - Paying it forward

Maria Daversa and her husband David Gulley sit on their porch with their dog, Bono who turns five in 2022, and their cat Patsy, who turns 15.

“When we received the letter from our veterinarian after our dear Rayne’s passing, and I contacted the Baker Institute to learn more, the light bulb went off, and that was it. This was what we wanted to be part of, something that looked into illnesses, diseases, pathologies, and to try to be helpful going in to the future.” These are the sentiments still expressed today by Maria Daversa, more than fourteen years since the passing of her and her husband’s, beloved German Shepherd, Rayne.