Neuroscience scholar Parvathy Saravanapavan dies at 38

Parvathy Saravanapavan

Parvathy Saravanapavan, PhD, an expert in the neurobiology of Alzheimer's disease and a mentor to Stanford undergraduates, died Nov. 22 at her home in Menlo Park from a rare form of appendiceal cancer. She was 38 years old.

Saravanapavan, a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, chronicled her cancer experience online in hopes of helping others with the disease. "I used to be a warrior full of hope," she wrote in May. "Now I have become a person not knowing my future."

Saravanapavan was born Feb. 28, 1970, in Sri Lanka, where her family was displaced by civil war. Her older brother, a civilian, disappeared in 1990 while traveling. The family searched for months, scouring refugee camps and army checkpoints, but never learned what happened to him. She took over daily household duties from her disconsolate parents while studying for the exams that would allow her to go abroad.

"I think it made her work very hard," her husband, Muralitharan (Ken) Kenegatharan, PhD, said of her brother's disappearance. "He was her mentor, really." Kenegatharan is a visiting scientist and former staff scientist in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine.

Saravanapavan earned her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Leeds, U.K., and did postdoctoral research in neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York before coming to Stanford in 2004. She used a shortened version of her maiden name, Saravanapavanathan, professionally and went by her husband's name, Kenegatharan, socially.

She continued working after her cancer diagnosis in 2005, often coming straight to the lab after chemotherapy treatments. An authority on the effects of cholesterol on Alzheimer's disease, she also "did some really innovative work on how abnormal proteins interact with inflammatory cells" in the brain, said Greer Murphy, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who supervised Saravanapavan. "She was so popular," said Murphy. "She just had this very alive and vibrant personality."

Saravanapavan enjoyed cooking, biking, traveling and ballroom dancing. She studied Zen Buddhism and gained great comfort through the Stanford Cancer Center's "Writing Together Through Cancer" workshop, friends said.

"I hope I will bounce back," she wrote after a difficult round of chemotherapy. "I have done this before, haven't I? The biggest question is, 'For how long can I keep bouncing back?'"

Saravanapavan is survived by her husband; her mother, Thanalakshmy Saravanapavanathan; and her sister, Dhuwaraha Nimal. She was predeceased by her brother, Sivapalan Saravanapavananthan, and father, Navaratnam Saravanapavananthan. A memorial service was held Nov. 26 in Menlo Park. The family requests that those wishing to make donations in her memory visit for information on a fund in her name.

Stephanie Pappas was a science-writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs.