March 19, 2019

Fellowship and seminar continue the legacy of virologist Vera Fay Righthand

Colleagues gathered March 19 at the Wayne State University School of Medicine’s Scott Hall to celebrate the legacy of the late Vera Fay Righthand, Ph.D., while honoring a doctoral student who will continue her legacy of innovation and research through the annual Vera Fay Righthand Fellowship in Virology.

The 2019-2020 awardee is Kendall Muzzarelli, a third-year doctoral candidate mentored by Professional of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology Ladislau Kovari, Ph.D. Muzzarelli received the fellowship last year as well.

Righthand 2019
From left are Raghavendar Thipparthi, Ph.D., Kendall Muzzarelli, Joshua Schiffer, M.D., and Philip Pellett, Ph.D.

“It’s a really big honor to receive it. I’m very grateful that I could get it two years in a row,” she said.

The Michigan native landed at Wayne State University after working at a biotech company in China for a few years. She moved back to Michigan for family. Although she received her undergraduate degree from another Michigan university, she chose to attend Wayne for her doctorate because of the university’s size, hands-on opportunities and leadership opportunities the principal investigators here encourage students to take, she said. She is in her third year of graduate school as a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major, working on a project to develop antiviral compounds that target noroviruses, which are a major cause of acute gastrointestinal illness on cruise ships and elsewhere.

She also won first place at WSU’s Graduate Student Research Day for “Elucidation of the Norovirus GII.4 Protease Structure by X-Ray Crystallography” in 2017.

The Vera Fay Righthand Seminar in Virology was given by Joshua Schiffer, M.D., an infectious disease clinician from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. Dr. Schiffer uses mathematical modeling to better understand the pathogenesis of herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and as a basis for developing improved methods for prevention and control of those important pathogens. He is the son of Charles Schiffer, M.D., a WSU professor of Medicine and of Oncology, and a physician at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

The fellowship, a gift from Dr. Righthand’s estate, allows the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology to attract promising students to follow in her footsteps. With the annual award, Dr. Righthand secured a future in which her life's work can continue, helping to advance health care protocols and procedures that enhance the quality of life in Michigan and around the world.

Dr. Righthand joined WSU's then-named Department of Microbiology in 1968 as an accomplished scientist with a doctorate from Rutgers University, where she worked on the molecular biology of the Rous Sarcoma Virus, demonstrating for the first time that viruses could cause cancer. She also completed a postdoctoral fellowship on virus cellular interrelationships at SUNY Buffalo, where she worked with the Salk polio inactivated subcutaneous vaccine and the Sabin live attenuated oral vaccine.

She retired with emeritus status in 1998 after 31 years of service to Wayne State University. She died in 2015.