Alumni Spotlight: Keith Fargo
Keith Fargo, BS’97, is seated at a research grain microscope, looking at a slide containing a sample a colleague had been working on earlier that morning. The red nucleus, collected from a Sprague-Dawley rat with a spinal cord injury, was projected on a computer screen behind him.
Fargo is a research health scientist at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Ill., located 12 miles west of Chicago. His research, conducted across the span of four laboratory spaces in an 80-year-old building on the VA campus, is to make the quality of life better for U.S. veterans through research.
“Every day has its own challenges. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re trying to help veterans who are returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who have experienced the trauma of war and who have been wounded with injuries to the neurosystem,” Fargo said. “For the last 30 to 40 years, science has made major strides in keeping people alive who have had these injuries, but now the question is how can we get them back to a normal life?”
Finding an opportunity to share what he saw through the lens of the microscope, he called his undergraduate student, Piotr (pronounced Peter) Tekiela of Bartlet, Ill., over to the microscope to take a closer look. Tekiela is a junior undergraduate student majoring in biology and psychology with a minor in neuroscience. The Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine is an affiliate program with the VA Hospital which provides a laboratory teaching experience for its students. This winter, Fargo is working with three undergraduate students, a surgical resident, and a Ph.D. seeking student in the lab.
“What I liked about the slide was how well it revealed the shape of the neurons,” Fargo later said. “They were big and bright, and you could see the structure of their primary dendrites, as well as their relationship to one another in the nucleus. Also, the particular dye being used to label the cells was a beautiful fluorescent blue, so they were quite nice to look at!”
In addition to the students he teaches in the lab, Fargo has also taught undergraduate and graduate courses at Loyola University since 2006.
“Teaching undergraduates, there’s a wow factor,” Fargo said. “In research, it’s a lot of hard, tedious work, but when you discover something, it’s a major reward. When you’re teaching a class, there are several moments when you can see the students are just getting it and you can see it in their face. In research, you’re not sure if what you’re doing is working. When things do work, it’s very exciting and very gratifying.”
The VA Hospital in Hines is a multifaceted 147-acre campus providing services to 56,000 veterans from health care to benefits. The hospital embraces a biomedical and clinical research program.
Fargo’s research is in neurology.
“My current research revolves around trying to understand the cellular and molecular processes underlying regeneration in the nervous system. In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of people every year are affected by traumatic nervous system injuries and neurodegenerative diseases,” Fargo said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury each year in the United States; this figure excludes military personnel in war zones. The United States Department of Veteran Affairs estimates 22 percent of military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq who have experienced combat wounds received brain injuries, according to the department’s website.
“Many of our veterans are returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with injuries to their nervous systems, as well. So the size of the problem is enormous,” Fargo said.
“While stem cell therapy holds a great deal of promise for the future, its clinical use may still be decades away. It is therefore critical to understand the ways in which the nervous system heals itself, so that we can control these processes to make recovery faster and more complete.”
The path to research
Becoming a neuroscientist isn’t a path many students consider when they begin their academic career. It wasn’t something Fargo had in mind when he began college at IU East in 1993 either.
What Fargo did have was a fascination with the complex system and its mechanics. He said part of his interest also stems from growing up with an older brother who suffered from Schizophrenia.
“I have always been interested in the mind and brain.
The nervous system seems to be fascinating to most people. Some of that is probably because the brain, spinal cord, and nerves are crucial to our existence, but at the same time they are hidden and mysterious to us,” Fargo said.
While a student at IU East, Fargo lived in New Castle, Ind., and commuted to the Richmond campus to complete coursework for his Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Sciences with a concentration in Psychology. His mother, Marieta Fargo, continues to reside in New Castle.
When Fargo graduated from IU East, he earned the highest distinction of his graduating class. He was the Naomi R. Osborne Scholar, an honor given to the graduate with the highest grade point average.
Fargo attributes many of the memorable experiences he had while at IU East to the faculty who challenged his thinking and exposed him to new ideas.
Bill Browne, retired professor of psychology, was Fargo’s mentor. Browne chaired the Behavioral and Social Sciences program. Fargo first met Browne while he taught the introduction course in psychology. As his mentor, Browne guided Fargo to take on additional responsibilities outside of the classroom. Fargo was soon involved in the Psi Chi and Psychology Clubs and he became the head teaching assistant in the BSS program.
“He also helped me design an independent research project and even secure some funding to carry it out. I try to emulate Dr. Browne’s personal and professional style in working with my own students and trainees, and I hope that one day I can provide the same kind of opportunities for a young person,” Fargo said.
Browne has kept in touch with Fargo over the years. Now that Fargo has his own lab, he couldn’t be happier for his former student. He also is pleased that Fargo is the chair for the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which monitors the use and care of animals in research. Browne said it’s a respected and very important position.
“He was an extremely bright individual. If you had a class of 25 of him, that would be a challenge for the instructor,” Browne said.
Anne Szopa, retired associate professor, played a critical role in the evolution of his thinking about feminism, and Joe Blake, retired professor, opened his eyes to a new way of thinking about how we come to understand our world and our society. Rob Tolley, senior lecturer of anthropology and sociology, travels with students to the canyons of Utah to study the cultures of ancient Native Americans. Fargo said for him, the trip was just as important to spend time in the rugged American wilderness and to see a new part of the world from a new perspective.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Fargo was a post-baccalaureate student at the University of Cincinnati in 1998 where he was a clinical study coordinator for a research-active psychiatrist. After a day’s work, he volunteered at night in a neuroscience laboratory at the University of Cincinnati.
“It was in doing the bench work that I realized I was more interested in the neurology aspect,” Fargo said. “This really helped to focus my interest specifically to the neuroscience side of things, and I ended up going to graduate school to study neuroscience. Today, my official title in the VA system is research health scientist, but colloquially I consider myself a neuroscientist.”
In 2006, he earned his Ph.D. in Neural Science and in Psychological and Brain Sciences from Indiana University. Fargo was the Chancellor’s Fellow and a National Research Service Award (NRSA) trainee. He went on to the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine and Hines VA Hospital to complete his training as a Ruth L. Kirschtein Individual NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow.
Every day is a new challenge
In May 2009, Fargo returned to visit Richmond and IU East as the Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. The award is presented annually during the commencement ceremony to an alumnus who has distinguished themselves through personal and professional accomplishments, community service, involvement with the university, and involvement with the Alumni Association. The same year, he was also honored with the Irving J. Saltzman Award for Outstanding Graduate Achievement from the Indiana University Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
In his address to graduates, Fargo left future alumni with a parting statement that their greatest achievements are still ahead.
As an IU East alumnus and a teacher, Fargo encourages his students and those around him to say yes to opportunities.
“One of the things that I love about my profession is that every day brings a new set of challenges. Certainly there are a fair number of routine tasks that have to be completed, just like in any job, but science is about being on the cutting edge,” Fargo said.
“When you discover something new, you are literally the first person in the world to know what you just found out. However, almost every project raises more questions than it answers. Half of the fun is in figuring out how to answer the new questions.”