Scientist Spotlight: Keolu Fox advocates for diversity in science and scientists
Keolu Fox has always been fascinated by both the natural world and history. Growing up as a child in Hawaii, Keolu would often fill the family’s bathtub with moss and frogs, inspired to examine the unique biodiversity around him. As he grew older, so did his penchant for the beauty of nature, whether it was coming face to face with the rich history of the Hawaiian Kingdom at archaeological temples on Hawaii’s “Big Island,” or visiting exhibits at the Smithsonian when his family later moved to Maryland. Though these interests were always in the back of his mind, it wasn’t until college that he would find an outlet for those long-held passions for biology and archeology.
When Keolu entered the University of Maryland as an undergraduate with a soccer scholarship, he couldn’t be bothered with grades. To Keolu, academics were merely a distraction from time spent with friends or on the soccer field. It wasn’t until he took classes with Dr. Fatimah Jackson, professor of Biological Anthropology (now at Howard University), that Keolu would draw from his experiences with nature and history in both Hawaii and D.C. and realize his interest in researching global health, genomics, and their intersection with race.
The mentorship of Dr. Jackson not only steered Keolu’s focus to academics, but also sparked his interest in exploring human genetic variation in the context of minority health issues. Under Dr. Jackson’s supervision, Keolu’s senior honors thesis broke down the rates of disparity in triple negative breast cancer in African American communities in the Chesapeake Bay region. Keolu furthered his investigations when, during his internship at the National Human Genome Research Institute, he studied how the adverse effects of a metered asthma inhaler disproportionately affect minorities. The inhaler was designed for whites, without taking into account differences in drug metabolization rates for African Americans and Hispanics. As Keolu points out, “96 percent of genome studies associating common genetic variation with specific diseases have focused exclusively on individuals of European ancestry.” At each juncture, Keolu’s mentors presented an alternative approach to the classical study of genomics, one more inclusive of minority populations, which remains important in his work today.
96 percent of genome studies associating common genetic variation with specific diseases have focused exclusively on individuals of European ancestry.
Keolu received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in the Department of Genome Sciences under Dr. Debbie Nickerson, where his work focused on the use of next-generation sequencing methods in precision medicine. Keolu generated tools to increase the compatibility of blood transfusion therapy for individuals with understudied ABO gene variants by utilizing data sets containing underrepresented populations. Keolu’s focus on data sets that include and document the genomics of minority or non-European ancestry populations is both novel and essential in the quest to truly personalize genomic medicine.
Today, Keolu continues to explore the links between global health and diversity in the research group of Alan Saltiel at the University of California San Diego. Using genome editing techniques to study genetic variation within diabetes and obesity-related genes, Keolu now studies health issues that are common in his fellow native Hawaiians.
2. The Fire Next Time By James Baldwin
3. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey Smith
2. Rigby, P. W., Dieckmann, M., Rhodes, C., & Berg, P. (1977). Labeling deoxyribonucleic acid to high specific activity in vitro by nick translation with DNA polymerase I. Journal of Molecular Biology, 113(1), 237-251. doi:10.1016/0022-2836(77)90052-3
3. Smith, L. M. (1988). Fluorescence-Based Automated DNA Sequence Analysis. Genetic Engineering, 91-108. doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-7081-3_5
Outside the lab, Keolu does not rest. At the University of Washington, Keolu formed and informal journal club with fellow indigenous graduate students Joe Yracheta and Katrina Claw. Their discussions of current research papers and the ethics and equity surrounding genomic studies led to their participation in the NIH- and NSF-funded program, the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING), and consultation with indigenous communities on the use of genomic data. Eventually, Keolu, Katrina, and Joe founded IndiGenomics, a non-profit organization with a mission to bring genomic expertise to indigenous communities. Central to IndiGenomics’ objectives is community-based participatory research (CBPR), which dictates that in order to study a group of people, members of the community being studied must be participants in the research, or the primary researchers must be members of that community themselves. As both a genomics researcher and native Hawaiian, Keolu, through IndiGenomics, teaches indigenous communities throughout the United States about the importance of community involvement in genomics research and of the ownership of their own genomic data. Keolu is working to expand the awareness and reach of the organization. Now a TED Fellow (his TED Talk from 2016 has been viewed 926,360 times) and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Keolu made a name for himself advocating for more inclusive and representative genomic studies.
Prior to entering college, Keolu relocated from Hawaii to Maryland’s rough Prince George County, not far from the University of Maryland itself. Keolu values the encouragement and exposure to new ideas he received from mentors like Dr. Jackson, to help him get out of government subsidized cooperative housing: “If I didn’t have all of that support, then I wouldn’t have made it out. There’s just no way. A lot of the people that I grew up with [are] dead, in jail, or had kids when they were age 14. So I look back on it and it’s so unique, because you don’t realize you’re being supported and ushered unto these new avenues in your life. And it worked out really well.” As an undergraduate, Keolu was also surrounded by his family; both his mother and uncle were also taking courses at the University of Maryland.
If I didn’t have all of that support, then I wouldn’t have made it out.
Often meeting up with his mother for take-out dinner study sessions in the library, Keolu reflects on the time that “it was very untraditional but it worked.” Keolu’s outgoing nature also helped him along the way. He ascribes his own success as a mentee to his gregarious nature and his ability not to let impostor syndrome creep into his sense of self-worth.
Oscillating between his work in the lab and his advocacy with IndiGenomics, Keolu sometimes struggles to find balance. Applying for grants, teaching, bench work, mentoring, and, of course, sleep all have to fit into his busy schedule. When he finds the time, Keolu recharges through cooking, sports and reading. While familiar with the stress and challenges of lab work, the challenges of running a non-profit are newer. Keolu is moving at a fast pace, securing funding for IndiGenomics through grants and taking what he calls the “Michael Jordan approach” to grant applications: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
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