In a life ended too early, she made key scientific gains

CorrespondentNovember 11, 2012 

  • More information LARYSA PEVNY Born: May 25, 1965 1987: earns degree in biochemistry from Columbia University 1992: earns Ph.D. in genetics from Columbia University 2001: recruited by UNC-Chapel Hill as an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics and the UNC Neuroscience Center Died: Sept. 30, 2012

Prior to her death, Dr. Larysa Pevny was researching the neuro stem cells that develop into the retina. Her work was building a foundation to cure blindness.

As the Director of the UNC Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Pevny had spent her career pioneering a science that takes the building blocks of life and puts them to use curing ailments

Pevny died at the age of 47 this fall. She had a liver condition diagnosed only within the last few years that she kept private. But neither her friends, family, or perhaps she herself knew it would fatal so swiftly.

Though her life was cut unexpectedly short, the work she accomplished was profound, its significance clear even during her shortened lifetime.

As a graduate student at the University of Columbia, Pevny began developing mouse genetic tools that would be used in laboratories all over the world. By implementing the use of “knockout mice” in her lab, she was able to delete specific genes from mice so that neuro experiments could be conducted. Her later work was key in identifying a gene family responsible for the function of neuronal stem cells.

“She was doing very unique things,” said Dr. Bill Snider, Director of the Neuroscience Center at UNC. He helped recruit her to the department and her passion for science was evident immediately.

Her sister, Dr. Olenka Pevny, recalls visiting her “little” sister, her best friend, in her lab.

“She would rather go to her lab than go, I don’t know, strawberry picking with me when I’d come to visit her. She had to go feed her mice,” Olenka Pevny said with a chuckle. “It would drive me crazy.”

Perhaps somewhat atypical of a scientist of her status, Pevny always made herself available to students, even undergraduates.

“She called her students her kids,” her sister said. “That was her life. She was very, very happy at work.”

And contrary to the stereotypical scientist, Pevny was anything but aloof or introverted. She is remembered as a thoughtful and generous colleague, not one worried about guarding her research, her sister said.

“Larysa was a very warm person,” said Dr. Terry Magnuson, Vice Dean for Research in the School of Medicine and also the Chair for the Department of Genetics. “She had a wonderful sense of humor which would often take you by surprise.”

As dedicated as she was to her career, Pevny was able to have outside interests such as cooking, hiking, traveling and caring for her dogs. She had one dog she named Barabolka, which means “small potato” in Ukrainian, and had recently taken on a puppy, which she named Bublyk, meaning powdered donut.

Pevny was the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, and her upbringing included everything from Ukrainian dance classes to Ukrainian girl scouts. Her parents came to the U.S. when they were children, their own parents seeking to escape communism. She was raised in New York City with her older sister and younger brother, and was brought up in a household where education, free thought, and passion were strongly encouraged.

Pevny started out in college more interested in literature, but after taking her first chemistry course she was hooked on science.

“She became absorbed in science and then fell into genetics,” Magnuson said. “I think she absolutely fell in love with the developing embryo.”

Later in her career, “Larysa definitely connected the potential of stem cell biology, regenerative medicine, to helping people,” Magnuson said. “She was one of our bright stars.”

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