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.”
Fair was particularly forward-thinking, Schlaggar said, in his assertion that conditions like autism and ADHD can have disparate underlying causes, even if the symptoms look similar in patients. This idea of precision mapping to help hone neuropsychiatric diagnosis is broadly accepted today. Fair certainly wasn’t the first or only scientist to come up with the concept, but he’s always been ahead of the curve in his thinking, Schlaggar said.
“He gave a tour de force graduate student contribution, and his ascent as a scientist has been steep ever since,” Schlaggar said.
Nardos, meanwhile, was encouraged by her mentor — L. Lewis Wall, a noted urogynecologist and anthropologist — to go back to Ethiopia to work with women who had experienced physical trauma during childbirth. So the whole family, which now also included a toddler son, packed up and moved — and Fair finished his dissertation abroad.
While working in a rural outpost in Ethiopia, Nardos was offered a fellowship in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at Oregon Health and Science University. Fair, at the time, was fielding offers from several U.S. institutions for postdoctoral study — including one from his mentor at Wash U, which was one of the top neuroimaging programs in the country. Fair turned it down, and off he and Nardos went to Oregon.
“OHSU might not have been his first choice for a postdoc,” Nardos said. “But Damien’s always supported my career: He said ‘OK, we’ll make it work.’”
“Even if it meant moving to different places, we’ve been able to progress in our career goals without having to make sacrifices for each other,” Fair said.
The research institution turned out to be a fantastic fit for the couple: It supported Nardos’ global health work, and “Damien just became this powerhouse in neuroimaging at OHSU,” Nardos said.
Fair continued his brain mapping work at OHSU up until this past summer — building up a framework for studying resting state functional connectivity through computer algorithms. He’s been instrumental in many large-scale data projects, including the ABCD Study — a National Institutes of Health-funded effort to collect and compare the brain scans of more than 10,000 children.
Fair is, perhaps, as much a computer scientist as he is a neuroscientist — and he’s a complete data purist.
“He’s actually very technically oriented, and loves software development, particularly when it comes to processing very large datasets,” said Nico Dosenbach, a former cubicle-mate at Wash U who also studies children with autism and ADHD.
In 2018, Fair and Dosenbach launched a software company called Nous Imaging, a nod to the Greek word used to connote “common sense.” The company’s product, called FIRMM, is meant to monitor patient movement during brain MRIs — in order to help keep brain images as clear and accurate as possible. Although millions of people have brain MRIs each year, about 20% of those images are considered invalid because a patient might twitch during the scan. The company raised $6.6 million in venture funding last year and, just last month, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the software for use.
This summer, after something of a bidding war among a few top institutions, Fair and Nardos were recruited to the University of Minnesota. It was a great fit academically, Fair said, but also for their family: Fair grew up there, and his now-retired parents are helping raise their son and daughter. Nardos herself has several relatives in the Minneapolis area, so it’s been a welcome homecoming, especially during the pandemic.
The couple is in the process of building up the infrastructure of their new posts: Nardos will serve as the first director of global women’s health at the school’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility. And Fair will lead the university’s Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, which was launched this May with a $35 million gift — and with the goal of helping to diagnose, treat, and prevent neurodevelopmental disorders in children and adolescents.
“He’s just a machine: Damien’s very energetic, and can be very serious and hyper-focused almost to a point of frustration,” said Marguerite Matthews, a former colleague of Fair’s — adding that he has a reputation for disappearing to conferences on the other side of the globe with very little notice to his employees. “I call it the mad scientist mode. But he’s also so fun and easy to be around.”
On top of neuroscience and algorithm building, Fair has a deep commitment to bringing people of color into the science workforce, said Matthews, who now works on the NIH’s initiative to enhance neuroscience diversity. Fair works hard to help elevate people’s careers, but remains very humble, Matthews said.
“He’s a rock star, and his wife? She’s like an angel,” said Anita Randolph, a neuroscientist who moved to Minnesota to team up with Fair after doing so at OHSU.
Randolph is now working with Fair on community outreach in Minneapolis, collaborating with public schools to build childrens’ interest in STEM learning — but also to help provide resources for neurodevelopmental disorders. She’s also branching out into Nardos’ line of work — with aims to collaborate on projects in Africa.
“There’s this cute back-and-forth between her and Dr. Fair — where they jokingly argue for my time,” Randolph said. “It’s just an interesting dynamic. A family vibe at work.”