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Rampant curiosity guides this pathologist

Animal attraction leads scientist to track viral outbreaks among raccoons

Patty Pesavento ’83 admittedly does not fit the pathologist’s image as portrayed on CSI, where, as she says, “all pathologists are tall, good looking, in high heels with nice nails, and always coming back from an opera. That’s not part of my job. I’m in rubber boots and overalls.”

At the University of California–Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Pesavento labors to unlock the key to a virus that is striking the masked marauders of Marin County—raccoons.

Pesavento leads a six-person team that has been “working our bushy little tails off” for the last two years to decipher why 17 raccoons from one area of California have a rare frontal-lobe brain tumor.

“We’re asking, ‘What capacity do these viruses [such as MERs and SARS] have?’ Animals are exposed to all the things we are. The more we understand about what the virus is doing in raccoons and how intractable the problem is, the more relevant it is for human medicine.”

Pesavento took a circuitous, paw-printed track to anatomical pathology—from post-Swarthmore studies in Chile, lab work at the National Institutes of Health, and graduate work in cell and molecular development biology at Harvard before vet school at UC–Davis. “Everything is relevant—that’s what the liberal arts is about,” she says. 

Despite her rampant curiosity about everything, she says, “When I was introduced to pathology for the first time, I was done. This is life. This is awesome. I get to satisfy my curiosity daily.”

In her job, which is 70 percent research, 30 percent teaching and service, Pesavento has examined everything from emus to elephants. “I do a lot of wildlife medicine, but I roll with whatever appears at our door.”