A MacArthur ‘Genius’ Will Likely Use His Grant to Support His Wife’s Work

Neuroscientist Damien Fair with his wife Rahel Nardos, a urogynecologist, and their son. (Courtesy photo)

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A MacArthur ‘genius’ will likely use his grant to support his wife’s work — in the name of science

There’s a rare and touching symbiosis in Damien Fair’s marriage. The prominent University of Minnesota neuroscientist was honored earlier this month with a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, but he likely will spend his earnings — a cool, no-strings-attached $625,000 — to support his wife’s life’s work.

Fair, who is 44, was singled out for his work in studying a child’s developing mind. He parses apart data showing how young brains look and operate — comparing neurotypical brain scans with those of children who have conditions like ADHD and autism.

His wife, Rahel Nardos, is a urogynecologist whose focus is global women’s health. Though her specialty is surgical reconstruction after childbirth injuries, she spends a lot of time working on ways to improve women’s access to medical care in low-resource settings.

After traveling the country and the world together, pursuing their respective careers, the duo now wants to combine forces. They’re brainstorming ways to support maternal health to improve the outcomes of women’s children — studying, perhaps, how certain environments during pregnancy might impact early brain development. Or maybe they’ll build new training programs abroad to improve medical expertise in countries that need it. Fair and Nardos haven’t quite decided yet.

“We’ve been talking about how to leverage each others’ expertise in underrepresented communities and in developing countries,” Fair said. “That’s one of the beauties of this MacArthur award: It lets you think outside the box.”

Fair grew up in Minnesota, the only child of a court reporter and a computer scientist. Nardos is from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and came to the U.S. on a scholarship to pursue her medical training. The two met during their graduate school years at Yale University: Fair was studying to be a physician assistant, as a sort of stopgap toward deciding whether he wanted to become a doctor. (He didn’t.) Nardos was in medical school.

At Yale, Fair worked in a brain imaging lab that studied stroke — using functional MRI scans to “peer inside the brain without actually touching it,” he said. “I realized then that I had to do this for my career.”

He and Nardos married, and as he applied for neuroscience Ph.D. programs around the country, she sought out OB-GYN residencies. They both found positions at Washington University in St. Louis. Fair, working under Bradley Schlaggar, a pediatric neurologist who studied developmental disabilities, was immediately branded a superstar.

“He’s extremely creative and sort of brave about taking on complex problems — he embraces challenge,” said Schlaggar, who now is CEO of Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, which works in tandem with Johns Hopkins University to study developmental disabilities in children. “He’s also extremely collaborative, and that helps catalyze more significant insights. He’s magnetic.”

Schlaggar said that Fair “really led the charge” in using functional MRI studies to probe connectivity in the brain. He was particularly interested in studying what happens in the brain when it’s at rest — and mapping out the intrinsic differences in how brains function. This mapping provides researchers with a better sense of how the brain is organized, and how its structure and electrical impulses are linked. This is particularly useful in certain mental health disorders, when there aren’t any obvious abnormalities in brain structure — but there are clear symptoms that indicate something has gone awry.

“Everything in the brain grossly looks the same: There’s nothing really different between someone who has ADHD and someone who does not,” Fair said. “We tend to treat disorders based on the labels, the outward appearance — but we’ve shown that this can be caused by completely different mechanisms in the brain.”

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