You wouldn’t know it by looking at his long list of achievements, but University of California, San Diego Assistant Professor Keolu Fox, ANTH ’08, wasn’t always academically motivated. In fact, he’ll be the first to admit that his decision to come to the University of Maryland didn’t have to do with classes—he played soccer and lacrosse at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in nearby Greenbelt, Md., and he wanted to make UMD’s varsity soccer team.
“The first semester I got to Maryland, my grades were 1.8; my success as a student almost didn’t happen,” recalled Fox, a native Hawaiian who spent his childhood in multiple different states before most recently settling in La Jolla, California. “I think for indigenous and black and brown students, there’s this tightrope; there were all these different moments where it could have just ended with me dropping out and going back to Hawaii and being completely content with my life, but I had really good mentors that showed me what was possible."
Department of Anthropology (ANTH) Emeritus Professor Fatimah Jackson, now a professor at Howard University, was one of those mentors. After being told he had to get close to a 4.0 to avoid academic probation the next semester, Fox enrolled in one of Jackson’s classes, and “found a rhythm of being focused and organized.” A few years later, he went on to work with Jackson on an honors thesis project collecting blood samples and stories from female African Americans with triple negative breast cancer.
For a few months after graduating—with high honors—with a B.A. in Biological Anthropology and Archaeology, Fox worked with Distinguished University Professor Mark Leone on the Wye House, where Frederick Douglas grew up as a slave, and other archaeological sites in Maryland. He then accepted a position as a fifth grade science teacher, but it wasn’t long before Fox realized that K-12 education just wasn’t for him.
Again, Jackson stepped in to provide direction. The National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute was looking for an intern to help with minority and indigenous health projects, and Jackson helped Fox get an interview. He was offered the position, then a fellowship, before the team told Fox he had to get a graduate degree or figure out some other next step.
He chose the former, pursuing a Ph.D. in Genome Sciences at the University of Washington’s Medical School.
“It was like a bank robbery from then on,” said Fox, the first native Hawaiian to receive such a Ph.D. “I was extremely productive, learned about computer science and bioinformatics, had so many tremendous opportunities—I gave a TED talk as a graduate student—got all kinds of different recognitions and awards, and it was all because I was in a really high-pressure, uber-productive medical school. I'm not saying it’s healthy, but for me, it was very productive.”
So productive, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) offered Fox a position as the UCSD Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow.
“And again, the bank robbery continued,” said Fox. “I ran through that [fellowship], and now I am a professor who just got recommended for accelerated tenure.”
But “a professor who just got recommended for accelerated tenure” is far from the only way Fox can be described. At UCSD alone, he is involved with the Department of Anthropology, the Global Health Program, the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, the Climate Action Lab, the Design Lab, and the Indigenous Futures Institute (IFI)—a community-driven, interdisciplinary project Fox co-founded that aims to put the power of scientific and academic knowledge back into the hands of communities.
With support from Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition, the IFI will soon be awarding $50,000-worth of grants to projects that combine indigenous wisdom with 21st-century tools to improve environmental health.
“A lot of what we do deals with empowering people, recognizing data as a resource, and challenging the status quo,” said Fox. “The new technologies that we come up with safeguard our people’s interest and create agency, and that involves a whole bunch of other things like decentralizing access to data; challenging the myth of open access; and creating opportunities for indigenous people to make money so we can actually buy our land back using these mechanisms.”
To further that mission, Fox plays a leading role in multiple other outside-UCSD organizations. For example, Fox is a founder of the Native BioData Consortium, the first 501(c)(3) nonprofit research institute led by Indigenous scientists and tribal members in the United States; a global chair for a coordinating hub called Equity for Indigenous Research and Innovation (ENRICH), which is working to design and develop technologies that safeguard Indigenous data; and an advisor to Variant Bio, a Seattle-based biomedical research company trying to develop better drugs by studying the genes of people with exceptional traits, such as HIV-resistance.
Fox has also been named a fellow of the Emerson Collective, a social change organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. With National Geographic, Fox will be visiting the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine protected area located off the coast of Hawaii, this fall, collecting data from coral reefs and archaeological sites that will then be owned by the people of Hawaii.
“Looking at some of the largest companies in the world—Google, Tesla, Amazon, Apple—all of these companies are really founded on data,” Fox explained. “If that's the foundation, then why are we giving it away for free? We need the next generation of scientists to really think about this because the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We need more of a Robin Hood mindset.”
Not all scientists agree with Fox—some even tried to steer him down a different postdoctoral path—but that’s not the case for Jackson, whom Fox still talks to “all the time.”
“I have to thank Dr. Jackson and her whole family, and obviously my mom, my parents and my whole family, for getting here. I got a tremendous education, and I'm very thankful for the time that I had,” said Fox. “The University of Maryland is also a special place in terms of how diverse it is, and I think they're doing an even better job now than they did when I was a student.”