This U of M Brain Science “Genius” Has Justice on His Mind

Beyond Dr. Damien Fair’s groundbreaking ADHD and autism findings, he’s fighting racism in academia and getting real on Twitter
By studying the brain at rest, Damien Fair has expanded our understanding of ADHD and autism
By studying the brain at rest, Damien Fair has expanded our understanding of ADHD and autism

Photo by Bernadette Fox

“Your brain—it’s a fascinating place,” says Damien Fair. He would know. In 2020, the University of Minnesota neuroscientist earned a MacArthur “genius grant”—one of 21—for studying the brain in its ostensibly least fascinating state: while at rest.

Scans of idle study participants helped Fair’s team at Oregon Health & Science University map neural connectivity. From there, he could begin to unravel disorders like ADHD and autism. Whereas stroke patients show obvious brain abnormalities, Fair says, “Someone with ADHD or autism—you can’t tell. They look the same.” But on the inside, their brains seem to fire in divergent patterns.

Fair, 45, returned to his home state of Minnesota last summer to codirect the new Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain. This comes after a basketball scholarship landed him at Augustana University in Sioux Falls; brain imaging invigorated him at Yale; and fearless curiosity became his MO at Washington University in St. Louis. At the U of M, he’ll track neurological disorders from infancy into adolescence. “It’s a phenomenon called ‘developmental origins,’” he explains. “The trajectories of a lot of these disorders are likely starting very early.”

Along the way, he’ll flex a reputation for academic activism. Last year, Fair found that reference lists in neuroscientific journals include more white authors than if race and ethnicity weren’t at play. He created Youth Engaged in Science to combat minority underrepresentation in STEM. And with the MacArthur grant’s $625,000, he says he’ll partner with his wife, Dr. Rahel Nardos, a urogynecologist who works to improve global access to women’s health. Whatever compels the duo (or, “power couple,” as they’ve been called), it’ll likely be a matter of equity.

One morning, about a month after the MacArthur announcement, the Winona native paused for an interview amid “back-to-back-to-back-to-back” Zoom meetings. His new role has him juggling lab work, teaching duties, and prep for the new institute. “But it’s a lot of fun,” he says, “because it’s something completely new.”

Photo by Bernadette Fox

Thinking about cultural differences in autism diagnoses—higher for Somali kids and white kids, lower for Black kids and Hispanic kids—could your work help us better understand what autism is and how it’s diagnosed?

Absolutely. There are certain types of inequities that we know are related to how we diagnose and who we diagnose that are difficult to overcome based on how we currently classify someone as having a disorder. Because it’s mostly based on symptoms. But as we begin to understand a little bit more—developing these new markers, developing these new techniques, like resting-state [analysis]—it helps us make diagnosis more like a blood test, instead of a diagnosis based on symptoms and outward appearance.

The other point is about early diagnosis. One of our main missions—it’s in the headline of the Masonic Institute: the idea of the first 1,000 days. They’re of critical importance. Life is a timeline. It’s a trajectory. Things don’t typically happen on a whim, right? There’s a path that gets you there. With autism, we technically don’t diagnose until toddlerhood, and with ADHD, it’s usually school-age, or even a little bit later. With schizophrenia, or depression, [diagnosis] moves into adolescence. But the trajectory, which gets you to that tipping point, is likely starting very much earlier. And that’s good and bad. If you can identify markers that predict those later changes, then you can intervene very early. That is a major focus of what we’re doing with the new institute.

You’ve researched discrimination in academic citations, based on race and gender. Why do citations matter in science?

Some of the new papers that have come out in this realm have been eye-popping, because a lot of scientists don’t think about this very much. In the sciences, you might think of citations as a currency. The more your papers are cited, the more popular you are, and the more popular you are, the easier it is to get your next paper done, and the more papers you get done, the easier it is to get your next grant, and get promoted, and get all this stuff—all based on people citing and paying attention to your work. And so, if folks of color, and in particular women, are being cited less, their ability to move up the ranks and maintain their career will be harder than somebody else. So, it’s critically important for the work that we do.

Your colleagues have marveled at your courage to ask for what you want. You’ve described that as an approach to discrimination. Could you tell me more about that?

Everybody is very different—I was a college athlete, I got a [basketball] scholarship to go to school, I had amazing friends and colleagues and supportive folks throughout my life. That’s probably what built my confidence over time.

My organic chemistry teacher—regardless of me not doing chemistry—was pretty instrumental in reshaping my thinking about how to stand up to folks who are, intentioned or not, trying to keep you down. His name was Gary Earl, from Augustana College, where I went [for undergrad] in South Dakota. He tells a really nice story of his own biases of me as I stepped into his class, before he even knew who I was, and how he assumed that I would be a not very good student. That probably set up a new bond between us. He definitely was my first mentor, the one who kept an eye on me. He called it ‘seeing right through me.’ He could tell when I was screwing up, or not trying, or staying out too late. And he would call me out on it, because he knew my potential. Partly, that was based on how I surprised him in his own class. But it was those types of experiences over time that helped me build my own confidence.

And it’s true: I’m not shy. I speak up for what I believe, and I challenge people if they tell me that I’m wrong. But I shouldn’t have to do that. A lot of people don’t. And it’s not fair that that’s the only way that someone like me can get an advantage. It’s not just about me and how I’ve made it, you know? Everybody should have a chance to get where I am, regardless of their specific personality traits. We should be building and instilling confidence in all of our youth, which is one of the reasons that we, at the new institute, are heavily investing in our community engagement and education unit. Because we want to start building that confidence and getting folks where I’m at, from all corners of our youth, here and around the country.

Having grown up in Winona, can you relate to the barriers to STEM that you’re helping African American kids overcome with Youth Engaged in Science?

Yes and no. I mean, Winona and the area where I grew up is a very rural community, not crazy diverse or anything like that. But I will say there were some systems put in place there that sparked my trajectory toward doing what I do now. At the time, there was a heavy investment by Bob Kierlin, who was the founder of Fastenal and a state senator from Winona, into cutting-edge computer access with the Minnesota Academy of Math & Science. It allowed folks like myself and others to get a peek at what science was, at what things you could do, and it was amazing. I was one of the first classes, and it just opened my eyes. ‘Oh yeah, this is what I want to do.’

It seems so small, but if I was not there, who knows what direction I would have gone for my career? For a lot of folks, particularly in communities of color, that accessibility, that ability to see the possibilities, is not always there. I got lucky, to be honest. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. We need to create that type of environment in other places, so we’re going to try to do that right here in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota has amazing resources. We want to make it accessible to some of these communities that probably don’t feel like it is.

Can research be a form of activism?

I will say this: We have a lot of inherent biases in the way that we connect our research that needs to change. There are some great examples: The genetics field, for years, has not been completely inclusive in how they’re conducting their research, simply based on convenience and who’s available for studies, and that has led to biases in some very major findings. The findings are not necessarily inclusive of the entire society, but a very small portion, culturally and ethnically. And that is beginning to pop out as a piece that needs to be corrected.

I don’t know if I would call [research] a form of activism, but I would say that we have to be very aware about how we’re connecting our work, making sure that we’re maximally inclusive and understanding that, if we’re not, that has potentially negative long-term effects on how our society moves forward in protecting everybody.

What’s it like being in a relationship with someone else who deals in big ideas? Do you inspire each other? Ever come to loggerheads?   

From 10,000 feet, it may look like we’re doing similar work—particularly with communities that are underrepresented—but when you look into the details, we’re doing very different things. But I would say that it does motivate lots of different conversations, and thinking through some of our own personal experiences. There’s not many times we’re at loggerheads, per se. We’re at loggerheads about a lot of stuff [laughs], but not about these issues. We’re pretty in sync. I think we’re similar in how we like to do things that are outside the box. It’s fun to think about how we combine our interests and our passions to do it together, in a way that can help folks who are marginalized in the sciences and clinical care—here, but also in places like her own country, in Ethiopia.

What political issues are most important to you right now?

One thing that bothers me is the dearth of medical and scientific leaders participating as government officials. That’s been part of our problem: the disconnect between some of our policies and the actual data. It’s been, in part, because we’re not always at the table. That has been a trend that makes me a little bit fearful. But it’s easy to understand how it happens: Public policy and politics are, in many respects, so not scientific. So, folks with my mentality tend to pull away, even though it’s probably a place we’re needed more. It’s one of the main missions of my new institute: to get the information flow, and the connections, and the links to the policymakers and the educators, so that we have a bigger impact on some of those decisions and ways that people are thinking.

You’re from Winona, and you came back to Minnesota for the U of M. What factors did you consider? Was there a coming-home element? Or was it for the research reputation?

I think it’s all of the above, really. My wife and I have been recruited to multiple places across the country, and it was a natural fit, because the U of M itself is an amazing institution with, I think, more resources and expertise than people realize. It’s one of those things about Minnesota culture: Folks don’t tend to brag much, and they’re kind of subtle in their expressions. In some respects, you don’t realize how amazing it is—even myself, who’s kind of in the weeds of this stuff. And then, on top of that, just having family here—both my wife and I—it just made for an easy, natural fit for our kids and our families.

What is something you’re really excited about?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is building the informatics, engineering, and biostatistics infrastructure here for developmental brain health. It’s amazing; I’m learning about all the different data issues that we have in our field, which it seems like the University of Minnesota has already solved in other fields, like agriculture. You learn that, oh, man—the folks doing the genetics of agriculture are having the same problems that we’re having, and they’ve got all these systems in place that have solved them. So, those kinds of links and bridges—utilizing that level of expertise and applying it toward brain health—are really exciting. 

Is there a reason you’ve wanted to make your voice heard on Twitter (@DrDamienFair)?

It’s funny—I was resisting Twitter for many years. They made an account for me in my lab, and I never used it. But over time, I realized that to get the word out, to attract people to come where we’re going, to let people really know what we’re doing, to build bridges that we wouldn’t think possible in the past, to advertise and celebrate other people’s successes—it’s a platform that can do some of that. It also does a lot of nasty stuff that we don’t like. But it does some good stuff. So, I’ve made the decision to jump on board and start contributing, however I can, to the broader mission.