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Catherine E. Kerr


1964 - 2016 Obituary Condolences Gallery
Catherine E. Kerr Obituary
Catherine E. Kerr, a path-blazing brain scientist of mindfulness, tai chi, qigong, and healing, died surrounded by friends and family at home in Watertown, Massachusetts, on November 12, 2016. She was 52, and the cause was complications due to multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow whose odds she had defied for two decades. Kerr was born in 1964 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents were Howard H. Kerrthen a graduate student, soon to be an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago specializing in writers like Mark Twain, and the curious role of spiritualism in 19th century Americaand Louise Ano Nuevo Kerr, among the first Latinas in the United States to earn a history PhD, and soon a pioneering historian of Mexican-Americans in Chicago. Kerr graduated from Evanston Township High School (class of 81) and from Amherst College (BA 85), where she met her future husband, Jonathan Kranes, and a close circle of life-long friends. Awarded a Mellon Fellowship, she completed her American Studies dissertation on Southern liberal attitudes toward the New Deal at the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Humanities in Baltimore, Maryland (PhD 94). It was in 1995, while teaching Social Studies at Harvard, that she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, at the time a poorly understood disease known mostly to strike in older people. She was told she faced a median survival of five years, with limited, highly risky options for treatment. Rejecting that fate, she researched the constantly shifting range of therapies and participated fully in treatment decisions. More than once she refused a recommended procedure that in hindsight might have killed her. Seeking guidance from teachers in the healing and martial arts, she also embarked on intensive daily practice of qigong, tai chi, and meditation. Her life at stake, she found herself occupied by new questions, requiring different analytic tools. After years of humanities training, she started down a new path in science, aided by a coveted career development award from the National Institutes of Health to support retraining. Under the guidance of Ted Kaptchuk, she joined the research team at Harvard Medical School that was studying the placebo response. Under first author Sara Lazar, she contributed to important early findings in the cognitive neuroscience of meditation. Kerrs emerging work provided novel ways of measuring how mindfulness and tai chi can transform practitioners bodily awareness and sensory acuity. She traveled twice to China, at one point to a qigong retreat where she was the only non-Chinese practitioner. In 2011, she joined the Department of Family Medicine at Brown University and was named the Director of Translational Neuroscience in the Contemplative Studies Initiative. At Brown, she created the Embodied Neuroscience lab, whose main focus was the Vitality Project, a clinical trial she designed to investigate the healing role of qigong in cancer survivors. A talented teacher of contemplative practices and mentor of young students, she was instrumental in shaping the emerging field. Her findings, and her commentary as someone who could explain contemplative science while taking care not to oversell experimental results, were increasingly recognized in the popular media. Recovering in recent years from a stem cell transplant, she drew on astonishing reserves of hope and focus to climb a mountain in New Hampshire and returned to work more productive. In 2015, after delivering a widely viewed TEDx talk, she traveled to India to present pioneering work on the neuroscience of mindfulness to His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Sera Monastery, where she was also called upon to provide basic neuroscience teaching to young monks. She enjoyed rooting for Liverpool football, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and old movies, and traveling through the American west with her husband Jon. Charismatic and dauntingly well read, with strong opinions and a mischievous eye for the absurd, she came to believe that collaboration was a key to discovery, and simple, heart-directed actions to a life of purpose. She was thankful for the wisdom of mentors, for the blood and platelet donors whose precious gift sustained her, and for the tireless efforts of myeloma researchers (including her own physicians) to create new therapies and drugs, at least a few of which arrived at just the right moment to help extend her life. Over the years, she expressed boundless thanks to the staff at the Beth Israel and Massachusetts General Hospitals who cared for her. In addition to her husband, a brave, constant companion on her journey, she is survived by a sister, Sarah Kerr, her husband, Michael Tomasky, and their daughter, Margot Tomasky, of North Bethesda, Md., and a half-sister, Lizabeth Kerr, of Costa Mesa. Neither they nor the friends and colleagues from so many parts of her life will forget her inspiring mind and soul or the courage of her example. In Kerrs memory, the Mind and Life Institute has created a new honor, the Catherine Kerr Award for Courageous and Compassionate Science. Those interested in donating to this award may visit www.mindandlife.org/make-a-gift/catherine-kerr-award. Those who wish to support multiple myeloma research may visit the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation at www. themmrf.org.
Published in The Watertown Tab & Press from Nov. 23 to Dec. 8, 2016
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