Animal Sciences receives first endowed professorship
Keith W. and Sara M. Kelley with their daughter, Megan
Rod Johnson
July 11, 2018

A new professorship in the Department of Animal Sciences will recognize and reward a talented and accomplished faculty member working in immunophysiology. The Keith W. and Sara M. Kelley Professorship of Immunophysiology is the first endowed professorship in the Department of Animal Sciences.

“The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) is addressing the world’s most critical challenges through our discovery and translation efforts”, says Kim Kidwell, Dean. “Endowed professorships allow us to attract the best talent in the discipline to ACES, which in this case, will allow a leading expert to advance the field of immunophysiology at the University of Illinois.”

Emphasizing interdisciplinary research in immunophysiology and national and international involvement, this professorship aligns closely with Keith Kelley’s professional path and accomplishments.

After completing a tour in Vietnam, Keith earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in animal sciences at the University of Illinois. Then Department head, D.E. Becker offered Keith an assistantship and tuition waiver, and introduced him to Stanley Curtis, a new faculty member in the early 1970s. While completing graduate studies with Curtis, Keith became fascinated with physiology.

At the time, animal sciences topics existed in silos, explains Rod Johnson, head of the Department of Animal Sciences, who earned his graduate degree working with Keith. There was little consideration for how genetics, nutrition, hormones, and the immune system affect each other.

Not understanding at the time why the burgeoning discipline of immunology was not included in physiology classes, Keith combined his expertise in immunology and neuroscience, and ultimately brought immunology to physiology.

After eight years on the faculty at Washington State University, D.E. Becker recruited Keith back to Illinois as a faculty member in 1984.

“D.E. Becker hired me two times,” Keith says. “He stuck his neck out, because, I think, he was convinced that immunophysiology deserved a place in animal sciences.”

“Without a Ph.D. from Illinois and Becker, Stan Curtis, and John Campbell, we wouldn’t be here today,” Sara Kelley says. “They believed in Keith and his program, and it was an outlier. It was very non-traditional animal sciences at the time.

“Dr. Kelley was visionary in realizing the immune system interacted with other physiologic systems in a bi-directional manner,” Johnson says.

A few years after returning to Illinois, Keith and colleagues secured the first of many multi-million dollar grants from the National Institute of Health. Soon after, key hires, including some with ties to the college of medicine were made that would continue to strengthen collaborative work in immunophysiology, Keith explains.

Keith’s career discoveries have proved that inflammation throughout the body transmits information to the brain. His findings have had important implications not only for animal health, but also humans, Johnson says.

Keith also served 15 years as Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. When he completed that role in 2017, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity had advanced into the top 15% of all scientific journals published worldwide in both immunology and neuroscience.

In 2006, the Department of Animal Sciences developed the Integrated Immunology and Behavior Program. The Kelleys hope the professorship will assist in recruiting and retaining the best immunology and physiology faculty going forward.

“In an environment of declining resources, difficult programmatic decisions must be made,” Johnson says. “This is an important gift because it ensures the Department of Animal Sciences will maintain its robust immunophysiology program in perpetuity.”

“I want to see this program thrive,” Keith says. “When you think of metabolism, illnesses, and mental health in human cases, immunology and physiology go together. I hope this professorship helps maintain that in the department. By having this professorship, the immunology research in context with physiology on this campus moves forward.”

“To really solve the big problems, you have to have people from different disciplines working together. It’s almost a no-brainer,” Sara adds. “If you are going to do translational research, you need to show how you are going to get from the pig to the human.” The Kelley Professorship is specifically designed to have a link with the College of Medicine to make this process easier.

Johnson adds that the vision is that the holder of the professorship is conducting research that benefits both animal agriculture and biomedicine.

King Li, Dean of the Carle College of Medicine notes, “Advances and findings in immunophysiology continue to have important implications in both animal and human health. The Kelley Professorship will enrich the ongoing valuable collaboration amongst researchers. Delivering the new Illinois Model for Medical Education is only possible with the tremendous interdisciplinary collaborations between Carle Illinois and the entire campus community. We are grateful for this partnership with ACES through the Kelley family’s generosity.”

The Kelleys are hopeful that the holder of the professorship will also have a global reputation. They lived for two years in France while on sabbatical and feel fortunate to have connections worldwide, they say. Keith continues to interact with colleagues in Europe, Japan, China, Australia, and New Zealand, sharing knowledge with them and continuing to learn from them.

Keith and Sara have a long relationship with the College of ACES. In addition to Keith’s graduate education and more than 35 years on faculty, Sara (Sims) earned her BS in foods and nutrition, following a long line of family members with degrees from Illinois. She held various positions at the university, including development and alumni relations positions in the Colleges of Education and Applied Health Sciences. The Kelleys have one daughter, Megan.

“I hope this endowed professorship is a sign of good things to come,” Johnson says. “It’s an inspirational gift that will have a very positive impact on students and faculty alike.”

“I think this gift sends an important message that we’re all in this together. We can’t fully depend on the state to fund our public institutions anymore,” Sara shares. “To me, it shows a partnership with friends of the university, and in our case, alumni and employees.”


*** Read a blog from Rod Johnson, Head of the Department of Animal Sciences, about his personal appreciation for the Keith W. and Sara M. Kelley Professorship of Immunophysiology