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Keith Black
Keith Black
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Keith Black Interview

Pioneering Neurosurgeon

May 4, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  Keith Black

In your life, you've combined a career as a brain surgeon, surely the most difficult specialty in medicine, with a career as a research scientist. What drew you to such difficult choices? What drives you?

Keith Black: There is, I think, an innate drive in humankind to create, to develop something new, to build on what we already know as a body of knowledge. The second is that there is something very spiritual. There is something very special about healing, about helping someone in need that's sick and trying to make them whole, to help their families. That's what's special about being a physician. And what's special about being a physician scientist is that you take that to one additional level, and that we know now that there are some diseases that we cannot cure, so we're limited. We know that we can only go so far with current technology to help our patients and help our families. So when we run up against our limitation, the drive in the researcher in me is to say, "We can do better. The next patient that I see is not going to die from this cancer. We're going to have them live a longer and better life." And that's the drive, to find the technologies to cure the diseases that are killing my patients.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

What gives you your greatest sense of satisfaction?

Keith Black: In terms of work, I would have to say there are three or four global things that I really enjoy. Two are in work. And in terms of the work...

There is an immediate gratification that you get when a patient comes to you with a very complex brain tumor and you can go and you can remove that brain tumor successfully, restore function in that patient, and have them go home in two or three days. I mean, you have given that patient and their family something, and that makes you feel good. And again, I may allow myself to enjoy that for a few minutes, but then you realize you have four other patients. You need to go and do exactly the same thing for the next day. So you never allow yourself to become cocky or conceited -- "Look how great I am!" -- but that's sort of an immediate gratification. There is a different gratification that comes in research and science, and it's longer term. It's the thrill of the discovery. "Wow! We figured out how this works, now that we have been working on it for five years," and that's it. That's how it comes together. That feeling can last for a longer time. It takes a longer time to get to, but you can feel good about that for six months or a year, because the discoveries are longer in between. So those are really sort of the two drives. And then if you can convert that discovery towards a better treatment for your patients... For example, we're now working on developing what we call a "vaccine for brain cancer" that we've taken into clinical trial, and translating that for better care for patients with a disease that we do not have a cure for at this time.

So in terms of professional gratification, those are the two things. Family, in terms of sort of enjoying your kids, there's nothing like it. And then there's a fourth for me, which I think is just the sense of adventure with life. Being on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and watching the sun rise, or white water rafting down the Zambezi. Those kinds of experiences are just fantastic.

When did you know you wanted to be a brain surgeon?

Keith Black: I think it was after my first course in neuroanatomy.

I went into an accelerated program, out of high school, at the University of Michigan, where they took 50 students, and we were admitted to both the medical school and undergrad out of high school, and you got your M.D. degree in six years, in addition to your undergrad degree. In the first year there I had an opportunity to take a course in neuroanatomy, and I knew right away. As soon as I looked and started studying the anatomy of the human brain, I realized how incredibly fascinating the human brain is, and that that's what I wanted to study. That's what I wanted to do.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

How did you manage to qualify for that kind of program in Michigan? What did you have to do to be one of the 50?

Keith Black: In addition to just having the grades and the test scores, I had demonstrated an aptitude really for research and science early on. When I was with my father one summer at the University of Pennsylvania, I would hang around the research labs at the University of Pennsylvania, which led me ultimately to try to seek out a position in a research lab when I went back to Cleveland, which I actually had an opportunity to start in the tenth grade. So I was doing research at one of the hospitals -- St. Luke's Hospital in Cleveland -- in tenth and eleventh grade, and essentially spent half of my twelfth grade year doing research in a surgical research lab, and published my first paper when I was 17 years old. So you know, I had demonstrated really a focus on science and research, which I think made me competitive for the program.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Keith Black Interview Photo
Did you feel that you were different from other kids? Did it affect your social life, or the way you interacted with your classmates?

Keith Black: No. I was happy. I was social. I was popular. I liked girls. I liked sports. I had a lot of friends. Actually, I became more focused when I was in the ninth grades -- in the seventh and eighth grade, my focus was really having a great time on the weekends and doing sports -- and I knew that I wanted to be competitive so I became more disciplined. I would get home and study, and try to spend more time with my friends on the weekends. I didn't consider myself to be not well-rounded and well-balanced. I had a good time.

Didn't you win a Westinghouse Prize?

Keith Black: Yes. It was actually for my research that I was doing in the tenth and eleventh grade.

I was working in the lab of a heart surgeon who had developed his own artificial heart valve, and I had a concept that the heart valve might be damaging red blood cells, so I asked to do a research project using a scanning electron microscope at the time. When I was trying to basically learn the technique, I took some blood from the heart-lung bypass machine from patients undergoing heart-lung bypass, and when I incubated the red blood cells overnight, I noticed that a certain percentage of these cells change from their normal discoid shape to one that resembled a porcupine, called an econocyte. What I did was to describe the discocyte-econocyte transformation in patients undergoing heart-lung bypass, as an index of sub-lethal red blood cell damage. The importance being that the blood cells could not parachute through the small capillaries. Normally a capillary is about five microns and the blood cell is seven, and it has to parachute through. The econocytes get stuck and can cause blockage in those capillaries.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You were doing this at the age of 17?

Keith Black: Yes.

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This page last revised on Oct 06, 2010 21:58 EDT
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