Leading with science
Meet Damien Fair, Ph.D., P.A.-C., the curious and collaborative ‘genius grant’ recipient at the helm of the new Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain
Picture an undergraduate organic chemistry class, early in the semester. The only Black student, a basketball star clad in practice sweats and a backward baseball cap, leans casually back in his chair. While his classmates take notes, he simply stares ahead. Is this kid even listening, the professor wonders?
“I didn’t take notes because I could never really learn that way; I just kind of soaked it in. But that looks pretty bad to a professor,” Damien Fair says with a laugh.
After Fair aced the first exam, it became clear that he was indeed listening. The professor apologized for his unfair assumptions—“he wrote to me later about how that changed him”—and became a treasured mentor.
Today Damien Fair, Ph.D., P.A.-C., is a behavioral neuroscientist and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, receiving what’s colloquially known as a “genius grant.” He’s also the Redleaf Endowed Director of the University of Minnesota’s new Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB), focused on understanding typical brain development and tackling the complex brain conditions that can result when that process goes off track.
“He’s super brilliant,” says Michael Georgieff, M.D., Fair’s MIDB codirector and holder of the Martin Lenz Harrison Land Grant Chair in Pediatrics in the U’s Medical School. “If anyone deserves a genius award, it’s him.”
Fair’s work is predicated on challenging assumptions, looking beyond what’s immediately visible to peer inside and better understand the most complex organ of them all.
Fair sees his work in layers. Answering crucial questions about brain development is, of course, one layer. Can maternal inflammation impede healthy brain development? Could a child’s unique brain activity predict how strong her working memory will be? (The answer’s yes, in both cases.)
Advancing the way neuroscience is conducted, through a host of technical and organizational innovations, is another layer.
“In our space, to really keep moving ahead and answering the questions you want to answer,” Fair says, “you end up doing a lot of methodological advancements.”
His big-picture thinking shows up in his commitment to broadening the science pipeline by nurturing talent in underrepresented communities, and in his passion for expediting the lab-to-clinic journey for research findings with promising implications.
Fair came to the U from Oregon Health and Science University in June for his role at the MIDB. He’s also a professor in the Institute of Child Development, part of the College of Education and Human Development, and the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics.
Past and current colleagues say his intellect and imagination are matched by a generosity of spirit rarely seen in academia; in fact, several members of his Oregon team followed Fair to Minnesota.
Among them: Anita Randolph, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics, who now directs community engagement and education at the MIDB.
That’s a role Fair created, in service of his mission to bring more diverse perspectives into science. “It’s extremely unique,” Randolph says. “Historically, so much of science outreach is from a very limited lens—definitely not from a BIPOC lens, or a female, or female-identifying, or nonbinary lens. Our team is super diverse,” she says, which allows students from marginalized communities to see themselves in science.
Randolph runs the Fair-designed Youth Engaged in Science (YES) program, expanding opportunities for kids and young adults to learn more about and participate in scientific endeavors. YES helps organize lab tours, interactive presentations, and internships to expose more young people to the universe of STEM career options—a top priority for Fair.
“In our society, we don’t give everybody a chance ... not even a chance to want to try,” he says. “It’s unfair, and maybe even more importantly, it limits our ability to make scientific progress. Because we’re not maximizing the potential that we have around us.”
Partnering for progress
Among Fair’s biggest research interests today is what he calls “the heterogeneity problem”: the fact that diagnoses like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders are not one single disorder, but multiple disorders with different brain mechanisms in play.
Another ongoing quest is finding the nature of the individual brain. “What makes you, you? We’ve been developing some new techniques to characterize or ‘fingerprint’ the brain so we can truly understand the variability we should be expecting,” he explains. “That could have a big impact on developing personalized, precision-type medical treatments.”
Fair’s collaborative ethic is central to his work; he feels at home at the U on that score.
Every institution says it fosters collaboration, Fair says. “But here, there’s truly a much higher sense of humility across different fields. It removes the barriers of the ‘I can do it all’ mentality.”
Right now, he and his colleagues are working on a new system to speed the flow of information from the lab to clinical trials.
“It takes, on average, 17 years before a research finding on brain development can actually have an impact on clinical practice or policymaking,” Fair says. “That’s because our system’s really not set up to push it along quickly or efficiently. We’re trying to break down those barriers, so that if I have a finding that might be applied to, say, how we treat ADHD, we can take that and pass the baton over to the clinical trialists directly,” Fair explains. “That vision is something we can do here that you can’t do everywhere.”
Fair is emphatic about the importance of philanthropy in advancing his work at the MIDB, named in recognition of a $35 million gift from Minnesota Masonic Charities and supported by a significant donation from the Lynne and Andrew Redleaf Foundation. Government and foundation funding is crucial, as well, but it tends to be slow and “risk averse,” he says.
“With the support of the community and philanthropy, that 17-year timeline can be flipped into five years. Things can move. You can see an impact.”
The unbridled joy Fair takes in his work is palpable, and it infects his colleagues, too.
“When I first met him, he talked about this family dynamic, and I thought, ‘This guy is full of baloney,’” Randolph says, laughing. “But it’s true. And when we hire people, we don’t only look at grades and test scores and credentials—instead it’s like, ‘What drives you? What are your values?’ This culture, this environment that he’s able to create, is really special.”