Dr. Danika Bannasch’s dog Pint is quite the budding celebrity on campus. The Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever recovers the kick-off tees at the Aggies home football games, and recently appeared on an episode of “Jeopardy.” But the only reason Pint is alive today is due to the incredible work of faculty at the UC Davis veterinary hospital, which saved his grandmother from an accidental poisoning.
Bannasch is here for a similar reason — the school's superb reputation. Bannasch holds the Maxine Adler Endowed Chair in Genetics and is associate director of the Genetics Program at the CCAH. “I wanted to be a dog geneticist my entire life,” Bannasch says, even proclaiming her chosen profession in her high school yearbook.
As an undergraduate student majoring in genetics at UC Davis, Bannasch interned at Genentech, in the lab of Art Levinson — the current CEO of Calico and chairman of Apple Inc. She credits Levinson with offering powerful advice she has lived by ever since: “He said there are going to be a lot of people trying to impress, and it’s always best to be very clear about what you know and what you don’t know." When Bannasch graduated college, dog genetics didn’t exist as an area of study. So she opted to pursue a PhD in molecular biology at Princeton University, working in a mouse genetics lab because it was the closest thing to dogs. Then she went on to earn her DVM from UC Davis.
While at Princeton, she worked in the lab of Dr. Shirley Tilghman, who later became the president of the university, and the first woman to hold this position. “She was inspirational — demonstrating that it was indeed possible to be a highly successful woman in science and a mother at the same time,” Bannasch says.
The Bannasch Laboratory at the CCAH studies inherited diseases in dogs and has produced significant findings that benefit animal health. Her team identified the gene mutation in dogs that can lead to bladder stones, and is determining the gene responsible for cleft palate and cleft lip in the Boxer, Labrador retriever and Whippet dog breeds. Other current projects include identifying the genes responsible for hypertrophic osteodystrophy in Weimaraners, a developmental disease that affects rapidly growing, large dogs between eight weeks and eight months of age. Affected puppies suffer severe joint pain. Her lab is also examining the genetic cause of brain tumors in dogs.
“The thing that makes me feel really proud about what I do is it ends animal suffering — because if a test is available and people use the test, they don’t produce diseased animals,” she says. Another example involves a DNA test Bannasch developed for lethal white foal syndrome. Upon birth, horses with this condition appear healthy — but inside have a nonfunctioning colon, and typically die within a few days. “We don’t see this syndrome anymore,” Bannasch says. “It’s basically been eliminated through the use of this test and related changes in breeding programs."
Not everyone knows at the young age of 16 what their career will be, but for Bannasch, her passion for animals and genetics has led her on a fulfilling professional journey — and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do,” she says. “This is absolutely my dream job.”