Tribute: Keeler and Sowers

Gerald J. Keeler: Environmental Health Sciences Faculty 1990 - 2011

Gerald J. Keeler, professor of environmental health sciences and of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at the University of Michigan, died April 12, 2011, after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 51. An environmental researcher and teacher who had a global impact, Keeler studied the sources and fate of trace elements and other pollutants and their impacts on human health and the environment, and he worked to develop new measurement and analytical tools. He was a leading expert on air pollution and mercury issues.

A native of Burnt Hills, New York, Keeler attended Boston College, where he played collegiate basketball, and UM. He joined the UM faculty in 1990 and ultimately held joint appointments in SPH, the College of Engineering, and the Department of Geological Sciences. During his 20-year career at Michigan, Keeler directed the UM Air Quality Laboratory and the EPA Air Pollution Training Center and was a research scientist with the Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences. He published more than 100 papers in peer-review journals and mentored and served as principal advisor to more than 40 master’s and PhD students.

"As a researcher, Jerry was tireless. He was never satisfied that we had done enough when it came to analyzing samples or data or planning for field studies. I don’t think “perfectionist” is quite the right word, but he made certain that the research his group conducted was of an extremely high quality.

"He did field studies up in Barrow, Alaska, studying atmospheric mercury. He did a huge amount of work across the Great Lakes region, studying the atmospheric deposition of mercury and other toxic pollutants, and in Florida and the Everglades, another sensitive ecosystem that has unfortunately received a lot of contamination of mercury. He served as an atmospheric mercury expert on numerous state and federal review committees over the last 20 years.
He was the busiest guy, but he always had time for you. It didn’t have to be research-related. He was happy to stick around if you had a real problem going on in your own life, or he’d ask if you went to the basketball game last night. He was a huge sports fanatic.

"This guy did so much. He’s this internationally respected researcher, a fantastic mentor to doctoral- and master’s-level students, and a great classroom teacher who puts everything he has into it. And you would think he has no other life. But he coaches his kids’ soccer and basketball teams, through the Little League stuff all the way up to high school.

" He would say, “Wow, this is crazy.” But he would say it with a laugh. It was kind of, like, let’s see how far we can push this envelope. If it was a research study, “Yes, we’re only funded for this amount, but let’s see if we can do all of this.” Everyone would look at him and say, “That’s crazy. You’ll never do it.” But he’d say, “Let’s not be discouraged. Let’s go one day at a time.” And I think that’s how he approached all of it.

"Jerry was always laughing, always telling jokes. Even when you were working hard in the lab, or on e-mail late, trying to hit some deadline, he had a very down-to-earth smile that said, “It’s going to work out fine. We’ll do our best.” —by Tim Dvonch
Tim Dvonch, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences and current director of the UM Air Quality Laboratory, worked with Jerry Keeler from 1998 to 2011.

MaryFran Sowers: Epidemiology Faculty 1987 - 2011

MaryFran Sowers, the John G. Searle Professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan, died July 17, 2011, in her Ann Arbor home. She was 64. A nationally and internationally renowned epidemiologist whose research in two interrelated areas, the clinical presentation of diseases and women’s health, placed her at the forefront of her field, Sowers contributed substantially to the growth of women’s health from a peripheral field of study to a major discipline. Her research included groundbreaking studies in the areas of bone health, osteoarthritis, reproductive aging, and physical functioning.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, Sowers received her BS in nutrition from Emporia State University, her MS in nutrition from Oklahoma State University, and her PhD in epidemiology/preventive medicine from the University of Iowa. She joined the UM SPH faculty in 1987 and held joint appointments in the Departments of Internal Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the UM School of Medicine.

"Sowers was a principal investigator for five NIH–funded grants, including the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), the first national study of women as they transition to menopause. In addition to her research and teaching, she directed the UM Center for Integrated Approaches to Complex Diseases.

"MaryFran Sowers is one of the most brilliant scientists to have worked at the University of Michigan. She had remarkable breadth and depth. Questions would come up about the physiologic underpinnings of health in a particular area, and she would think about their significance for understanding another health outcome and would pursue studies of each to illu-minate the basic processes that produce multiple manifestations of ill health. She had extraordinary insight into scientific linkages and how to move forward our understanding of population health.

"She did cutting-edge work in areas where others have not worked. She was one of the early people in the field of menopause, one of the early people to push women’s health. Her work in osteoarthritis is groundbreaking. She was one of the first people to look at the importance of the bone you have before you begin to lose it—to acknowledge the importance of good bone deposits in your thirties. She did pathbreaking research on weight and the difference between healthy and unhealthy obesity.

"MaryFran was driven by her desire to know, and even in these last months I could just see that there was so much knowledge in her brain that she wanted to get out: those thoughts, those papers, that new piece of work, to give life to that. To the very end, she was sharing her knowledge with the world.
She was a great scientist and an innovative teacher who always had time for her students. She was at the forefront of efforts to break down barriers and open opportunities for women. And she cared deeply about the women in her studies. She always answered their phone calls herself and made sure that her research addressed their health interests and concerns. She’d have evenings in the community where she shared results and health information with them. She made a difference in their lives. MaryFran had the knowledge to help them understand their conditions, and she tried to facilitate health opportunities for those women with scarce resources. We’ve only begun to realize the implications of her work, which has changed entire fields of research."
by Siobán Harlow

Siobán Harlow, professor of epidemiology, is principal investigator of the NIH-funded SWAN study (Michigan) and interim director of the UM Center for Integrative Approaches to Complex Diseases.

Events were held in fall 2011 at UM SPH to honor each of these scholars.

Feel free to add your memories and tributes in the comments space on this page.