by Danny Lachance
Keith and Nancy Nuechterlein established a fellowship in their mentor's name
Keith Nuechterlein's (B.A. '70, Ph.D. '78) first encounter with legendary Minnesota psychologist Norman Garmezy wasn't exactly personal. Garmezy was projected onto a screen in a crowded auditorium, delivering a previously recorded lecture to Nuechterlein's Introduction to Psychology class.
"He was just so well informed," recalls Nuechterlein. Indeed, Garmezy's path-breaking work on schizophrenia and on childhood resilience made him a giant in the field. But something else came through despite the impersonal medium of a recorded lecture: "He also seemed approachable," says Nuechterlein.
Intrigued by the lecture, Nuechterlein visited with Garmezy and launched a decades-long relationship with the scholar. Approachable, he found, was an understatement. Inspired by Garmezy and under his direction, Nuechterlein went on to write a summa cum laude undergraduate thesis on competent disadvantaged children. After graduation, he returned to Garmezy's lab as a Ph.D. student focusing on factors in the development of schizophrenia.
It was an exciting time to be working with Garmezy, Nuechterlein says. After years of research on children with schizophrenic parents, Garmezy had begun to wonder why some of the children he studied functioned well despite enormous disadvantages. That question led him to pioneer studies that laid the foundation for decades of research on resilience in children.
But for all Garmezy's fame, he would use self-deprecating humor to put his students at ease. When Elliott Hall was being built, Garmezy called Nuechterlein into his office and pointed to blueprints sprawled across his desk. "Keith," he said, "they're asking me where I want my office. I've looked at the plans, but I can't even tell which side of the building faces the river. Your spatial abilities are good. Which way is the river?"
Nuechterlein laughs at the memory. "It was endearing, this brilliant man who recognized that he couldn't read a map," he says. Moments like those, he says, provided relief from the challenges of working on a disease that takes a devastating toll on its victims.
Since he earned his doctorate in 1978, Nuechterlein's own career has remained grounded in schizophrenia. The author of more than 180 journal articles, he is currently director of UCLA's Center for Neurocognition and Emotion in Schizophrenia.
He and colleagues recently oversaw the development of a consensus battery of cognitive tests that are now being used to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments that attempt to reverse the damage schizophrenia does to cognitive functions like attention, memory, and problem-solving ability. Reversing those core deficits is a crucial goal for schizophrenia researchers. Anti-psychotic medication can eliminate the hallucinations and delusions, but cognitive deficits can keep those who suffer from the disease from resuming a normal life.
"The belief is that once we can reverse these cognitive deficits, much of the disability that is often caused by schizophrenia, like the inability to work productively or live independently, is likely to be reversed as well," Nuechterlein explains.
Now established as a prominent researcher in the field, Nuechterlein, with his wife, Nancy, has decided to express gratitude to Garmezy by establishing a fellowship in his honor. The Norman Garmezy Graduate Fellowship will provide annual funding to a clinical psychology graduate student in the Department of Psychology or the Institute of Child Development.
Nancy, who met Keith during his clinical internship in Los Angeles, hopes the gift will reflect some of the warmth that she received when she first met Garmezy and his wife, Edith, on trips to Minnesota. "I was the new kid on the block, and they were so giving in their willingness to embrace Keith and me as a couple," says Nancy, who is a licensed mental health professional.
Memories of that warmth and selflessness, Keith hopes, will prompt other alumni, colleagues, and friends to contribute to the fund. "We know so many other people have been influenced by Norm,"
he says. "We're hoping that our gift is just the beginning."