Bridge out! Street closed! No matter which road you’re on, inevitably there will be times when life sends you on a detour.
For Anamaria Zavala, plans for an intense postdoctoral career in cancer research suddenly gave way to caring for her parents and newborn lambs on the family farm.
Returning to her science career after a seven-year hiatus, Zavala has no regrets about the way things turned out. Though unintended, she said the years away from the university provided her with a priceless education about life.
It was Christmas 1998. Zavala had just completed her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and decided to take a year off before pursuing postdoctoral work. (Zavala at WSU. Photo by Becky Phillips)
Originally from the San Francisco area, her family recently had purchased a sheep farm in Parma, Idaho. Zavala moved there to help out around the barn.
In April, she and her mother were preparing to lay water lines to the back pasture. As required, professionals had come out earlier to mark the power, gas and telephone lines.
Zavala was not concerned as she watched her mother take off through the fields on a riding trencher. But later, when the electricity went off in the house, she ran outside and found her mother unconscious on the machine, engine still running.
It was 18 months before the family learned that the man who marked the power lines had been on illegal drugs — and had mismarked the lines by a good three feet. Zavala’s mother had inadvertently trenched through the electrical lines and was electrocuted three times.
Though her mother showed few external signs, she had suffered massive internal damage.
“She had neurological damage all through her body,” said Zavala. “She also had heart failure and pulmonary edema. Her teeth were shattered, and vertebrae were broken in her neck and back.”
If that wasn’t enough, not long after the accident Zavala’s father hit a freak patch of ice on a sunny day and rolled his pickup. He ended up with neck fractures and head injuries requiring surgery. Zavala had to manage the farm on her own.
“I learned a lot about sheep — how to shear and how to lamb them. Sometimes I’d have to go out three or four times a night to check on them.”
In her spare time, she indulged in her hobby — construction. “My parents owned a couple of older houses, so I remodeled them and we sold them,” she said.
Six years after the accident, her mother was recovering and encouraged Zavala to return to her career in cancer research. It was then that Zavala discovered the National Institutes of Health supplements to promote re-entry into biomedical and behavioral research careers.
This program supplements existing NIH research grants for the purpose of updating the research skills and knowledge of returning applicants. The supplement is specifically aimed at scientists who have had to leave their careers in order to take care of children or parents.
“The grant was for those who had been out of science from one to seven years,” said Zavala, “so I was running out of time.”
Hoping to remain near her family, she sent out project proposals to qualified researchers throughout the Northwest — including one to Michael Smerdon, professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences.
After an interview, Smerdon agreed to sponsor Zavala — and was subsequently approved by NIH in August 2007 for three years of funding.
Today you’ll find Zavala, in a tiny office with shared lab benches, cheerfully investigating DNA repair and histone modifications. Exuding the joy of someone given a second chance, she says she “absolutely recommends the NIH supplement for others in my situation.”