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UPDATED: Tragedy strikes new Ph.D.s and family

By Dave Jones on June 25, 2013 in University News

UPDATED with children's injuries, one daughter's release from the hospital and father's pending release, and aid fund total.

A week and a half ago, it was a joyous celebration for husband and wife Fernando O. Mardones and Loreto A. Godoy at their Ph.D. graduation, accompanied by their two children and Mardones’ parents.

Then, late Friday afternoon (June 21), as the family drove on Interstate 5 to Southern California, for a vacation, a northbound car came across the median and crashed head-on into their car. Mardones’ father and mother, in the front seat, were killed.

Today (June 25), Godoy, 32, is still in intensive care at a San Joaquin Valley hospital, taken there by helicopter from the interstate after the California Highway Patrol shut it down. Colleagues repeatedly describe her as a “ray of sunshine” and accomplished academic.

Her husband, 36, was being treated at the same hospital; he suffered broken ribs and a broken ankle, and underwent surgery for the latter. A friend of the family's said Mardones was due to be discharged today.

The couple’s daughters, 4-year-old Agustina and 8-month-old Rafaela, were taken to a different hospital in the valley; the family friend said Rafaela suffered a broken leg and collarbone, and had been discharged, while Agustina was still in the hospital after undergoing surgery for liver injury. Agustina also suffered a broken wrist, a broken arm on the other side, and broken ribs.

Godoy and Mardones both are close to earning their doctorates — Godoy in conservation ecology, and Mardones in epidemiology and infectious disease (School of Veterinary Medicine) — so close that the couple participated in the Graduate Studies commencement on June 13.

In the hours and days after the crash, “their family and friends, including (faculty members) Holly Ernest, Bruce Hoar and emeritus faculty Dave Hird and his wife, Shelley, rallied to their side and have offered support and assistance,” Michael Lairmore, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, said in an email this morning to the school community.

The family’s support system is doing what they can, Lairmore said, “and, as a community, we can best help by providing some much needed financial assistance.”

Donations can be made online. Ale Aleuy, who set up the fund, wrote on the website: “Several of their closest relatives are traveling from Chile now. This in addition to the medical care are very large expenses for their families, which makes very important our effort to help them as much as we can.”

As of 4:30 p.m. today, the fund had taken in more than $80,000.

The crash occurred just after 4:30 p.m. south of Santa Nella, about 115 miles south of Sacramento. The California Highway Patrol may never know why the northbound car drifted across the median; the man behind the wheel was the only person in the car, and he was killed.

Mardones’ father was driving a Ford sedan, his wife beside him in the passenger seat, according to officer Jesse Lopez of the CHP’s Los Banos office. The Merced County coroner’s office identified them as Fernando Mardones, 62, and Maria Loreto Loyola, 61, of Ñuñoa, Santiago, Chile.

The younger Fernando Mardones and his wife rode in the back seat with their children, Lopez said. No one was ejected.

Mardones and Godoy each received a master’s degree in preventive veterinary medicine from UC Davis (Mardones in 2007, Godoy in 2009) after receiving doctorates in veterinary medicine in their native Chile. In coming here, Mardones and Godoy continued a long and storied UC Davis-Chilean relationship in agriculture and veterinary medicine.

In settling in as graduate students, Godoy and Mardones became part of the campus and Davis community, had their children here (friends describe Godoy and Mardones as “fantastic parents”), and enjoyed everything about Davis and environs: the farmers market, kayaking and hiking.

After receiving his M.P.V.M., Mardones continued as a doctoral student under the guidance of Andres Perez, associate research epidemiologist, and interim director of the Center for Animal Disease Modeling and Surveillance.

Mardones’ research centers on statistical modeling of infectious diseases in wild and domestic animals, with a particular interest in salmon in Chile. Noticing a need in the curriculum, he designed a class in “spatial epidemiology,” which focuses on how animal diseases spread or cluster in a given area.

He has been a strong advocate for students and served as president of the Epidemiology Graduate Students Group.

Veterinary school faculty members have been so impressed with his expertise and commitment that they have invited him to apply for a new faculty position in veterinary epidemiology.

Godoy, a member of the Ecology Graduate Group, has studied for her doctorate under the guidance of Holly Ernest, associate professor in residence, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, Population Health and Reproduction, and Wildlife Health Center, all in the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Godoy does research in the areas of conservation medicine, epidemiology and wildlife population health.

She studied California sea otters during her master’s degree program and is now studying hummingbird health. Her research has helped to identify the cause and provide the first definitive laboratory diagnosis of avian pox disease in hummingbirds.

“Loreto is the most amazing person,” Ernest said. “She is brilliant and scientifically creative, but on top of that she is the brightest ray of sunshine.

“She is always helping other students, and when we have been banding hummingbirds, all of the volunteers just love her. I don’t often use the word ‘angel,’ but Loreto is one of the few people that it truly fits.”

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Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,