Miami-Dade County

Florida International University ‘lovebirds’ receive doctorate degrees

Justin Campbell was interested in tropical sea grass. And Sat Gavassa was interested in electric fish. It was only natural that the two doctoral students would want to sit next to each other during an “Introduction to Biology Research” class at Florida International University.

They are like soul mates. And their relationship is so genuine that FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg referred to them as the “FIU lovebirds” during Monday’s winter commencement ceremony for FIU’s students in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“They were sitting together during the first class. They were sitting together on the third class. They were still sitting together by the fourth class. And by the end of the semester it was obvious there was love,” said FIU biology professor Phil Stoddard.

The husband and wife walked across a stage in the school’s gym with about 250 other graduates, accepted their doctoral diplomas, and flipped the tassel.

The journey that would bring them together at FIU was a long one.

When they were kids, they both liked to take things apart to figure out how they worked. As teenagers, they both enjoyed the outdoors. And as young adults, they were both curious about science.

Gavassa, 30, was born in Bucaramanga, Colombia. Her parents fell in love while they were students at the Universidad Industrial de Santander in Bucaramanga. They raised their daughter a vegetarian and moved to a self-sustained organic farm without electricity in the middle of nowhere in eastern Colombia “to be able to have a spiritual connection with nature,” said her mom Ilda Becerra, 55, who flew in from Colombia with her husband to witness their daughter’s big day .

She didn’t have any modern toys.

“Her only friends were a monkey and a parrot,” said dad Virgilio Gavassa, 64, who is of Italian descent. “When she was a little girl, she would say ‘Cu cu Cu cu’ when she was playing with a cockroach, and then one day she was playing with a poisonous snake.”

As a child, Gavassa was home schooled. Her nickname at her prestigious bilingual school –– Colegio La Quinta del Puente –– in Bucaramanga for a while was “the tourist” because she would visit the school to pick up her assignments and books and return for finals.

Her parents were proud when she was admitted to the private La Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia’s capital, to study biology. They never imagined that one day a professor would refer her to Florida International University in West Miami-Dade to get her doctorate in biology.

Gavassa impressed Stoddard with her “electric fish detector,” which she built by “switching a few wires in a radio” with the guidance of a biology professor in Uruguay.

At Los Andes “I was able to meet others who also wanted to help preserve the environment like me. We even founded an NGO [non-governmental organization],” said Gavassa. “My plan was to get my doctorate in Miami and return to Colombia to continue my work, but then I met him [Campbell].”

Gavassa said she noticed Campbell’s kindness when he would help her tediously clean weed out of a fish tank.

Campbell, 33, received an engineering degree from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He was crazy about scuba diving, one of the things that drew him to South Florida.

He enrolled in FIU’s doctoral program, interested in the effects of carbon dioxide fertilization on the ecology of a tropical sea grass.

He enjoyed being around Gavassa, especially when he saw how fearless she was underwater scuba diving.

Five years after they met in 2006, Campbell proposed. Their August wedding was like a fairy tale.

The couple has traveled to Argentina, Uruguay, Holland, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. They now live in a Brickell apartment with a view of Biscayne Bay.

“My wife and I knew there was something special with these two,” said Justin’s father Vincent Campbell, a pediatrician. “She is a very beautiful woman. She is polite, sweet and intelligent. We just knew.”