Acclaimed pathogen expert Paul Keim maintains commitment to NAU, Arizona

December 14, 2022

By brianpowell

When the Flinn Foundation launched Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap in 2002, Paul Keim, Ph.D., was already playing a critical role in a federal anthrax investigation from his lab at Northern Arizona University.

And throughout the ensuing 20 years of the Roadmap, Keim has continued his groundbreaking research as the executive director of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute at NAU, while serving as a strong advocate for the biosciences and undergraduate research in Arizona—and representing the state on the global stage.

Earlier in his career, Keim found that his background as a geneticist in evolutionary biology translated well into the genomic analysis of pathogens and the ability to track diseases, which has enabled his lab to contribute in new ways to the study of disease.

During his time at NAU, Keim has played key roles in partnerships with other Arizona institutions, including Translational Genomics Research Institute, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.

Two decades ago, when Keim was being recruited to leave the state, he was offered the opportunity to start TGen North—providing him access to cutting-edge genomics technology that had been previously lacking in Arizona. The foundational work researchers began during those years meant that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the three state universities had the capacity to respond, creating a consortium to track cases and viral mutations within Arizona, publish journal articles for the broader scientific community, and help the public understand in real time what was happening.

Keim played a leading role in the FBI investigation of the anthrax attacks that occurred shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The technology Keim had built at NAU was able to precisely identify strains of anthrax found anywhere in the world, a capacity no other lab had; NAU became the anthrax investigative lab for the FBI. In 2022, he played a starring role in a Netflix documentary film about the attacks, where he and NAU were given credit for their role in determining who sent the anthrax through the mail and frightened an already jittery nation.

An NAU graduate himself, Keim has placed a great emphasis on providing training for undergraduate researchers. That includes paying the students to work at the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute for two or three years and enabling older undergraduates to train younger students. The lab also offers opportunities for about five highly trained students to be paid to continue their research for another year after graduation.

Keim, who has been on faculty at NAU for 34 years, has developed a method of genomic analysis for forensic investigations of disease outbreaks with the hope of stopping the illnesses from spreading in the future. This applies to anthrax, but also Valley fever, E.coli, cholera, and others.

For instance, Keim and research colleagues were able to identify the source of a severe cholera outbreak in Haiti following its major earthquake in 2010; in another case, they uncovered how Valley fever had spread from an organ transplant.

Keim is currently spending a one-year sabbatical at Oxford University as a visiting professor, working on a daily basis with scientists he has known for years, exploring different areas of science, and writing a book with a colleague about infectious diseases.

In summer 2023, Keim will return to NAU and resume his position as head of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute and Distinguished Professor at TGen. He plans to continue to share his knowledge and love of science from the place he likes best—Flagstaff, Arizona. 

Meet other Arizona bioscience leaders:
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Mayo Clinic continues expansion of medical education, research, and care in Arizona
20 years of TGen: Using genomics for medical benefit