Robert (Rob) P. Igo, Jr., PhD: Our Appreciation

Robert (Rob) P. Igo, Jr., PhD, passed away over the weekend of July 18, 2020.

He was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences (PQHS), the academic home to the Cleveland Institute for Computational Biology. We all frequently collaborate, including Rob, who contributed to research done under the auspices of the Institute.

This is a photo capturing an endearing aspect of Rob, who loved cats. At a recent team retreat in Amish country, he found a litter of barn kittens and befriended them all.

 

Below are comments and reflections on Rob from his students and colleagues.

 

Rob was one of those steadfast guys; he was the big brother I needed as I was getting through my dissertation. He provided advice about the design of my research and help when I was stuck with data analysis, but he was also the guy I could go to when I had something great to share – or when life wasn’t going my way. I always felt heard when I met with him. I would walk out of his office feeling that I could solve whatever the problem was and keep going.

In meetings, he always knew when we needed a cat doodle to lighten things up. He was the glue for the team. He also knew where the best free food was – we especially enjoyed helping the medical students celebrate Match Day. His love of Dr. Pepper matched my own devotion to Coke Zero.

Rob stood in for my formal mentor who was out of the country for my graduation ceremony. He did my “hooding” – when you are formally recognized as a PhD. It’s a big moment, and it was special that it was Rob, both a mentor and friend who played that role for me.

When I “matched” for my residency in Portland, he assured me that a Wisconsin native would do just fine in the Pacific Northwest. He had studied and lived in Seattle and so that also became something we shared as colleagues and friends.

He and his wife Katheryne came to my wedding in Mexico. For our first days at the resort, there was torrential rain from a passing hurricane, but Rob helped keep my spirits up. On the wedding day, the rain broke and we were rewarded with a rainbow after the ceremony. Rob taught me to make the best of what you’ve been dealt.

I could always count on him – professionally and personally. This is hard. You don’t think that some people will be gone – and then you wish you had shared with them how important they were to you. It gets harder as you get older to make life-long friends like Rob. I will miss him.

Laura Kopplin, MD, PhD, Faculty, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health

One of Rob's many intricate and fanciful drawings. This one is titled: Ode to COVID-19

I had the honor of working with Dr. Igo originally via the International AMD Genomics Consortium and then was able to join him on the Haines Lab team. He was someone who was a mentor and teacher to me, as well as a role model of being both a phenomenal human being and a fantastic scientist. Dr. Igo had the unique capability of making anyone comfortable to ask any question or inquiry, no matter who it came from -- student, colleague, etc, and no matter how basic the inquiry. He treated everyone he met with kindness. His humor, sarcasm, and a fantastic view of the universe was unmatched. I will always be grateful for the time he took to teach, discuss, and converse with me.  I don't think the world will be the same without him.

Michelle Grunin, PhD, Post-Doctoral Researcher, PQHS

Even though he is gone, Dr. Igo's impact on my career is everlasting. With a background in pulmonary and critical care medicine, I enrolled in CWRU's translational science PhD program in 2015. Soon enough, I decided to learn genetic epidemiology. I knocked on many doors asking for mentorship in genetic epidemiology, but only two professors opened their door for me. Dr. Igo was one of them. Over the last four years, I got to know him well. I took his classes, did my dissertation with him, and finally graduated in May 2020 thanks to his help.

Early this week, I learned the sad news that Rob is no longer with us. Rob is not just a professor at Case; he is one of the most genuine and altruistic human beings I ever met. A brilliant professor, and of equal importance, a skilled one. He simplified extremely complex statistical concepts into something everyone can understand, even clinicians. Every time I told him, " I got my NIH grant because of Aim 2 and I got my Aim 2 because of you", he smiled. It is true. He never had to help me, but he did anyway. 

Goodbye Rob. Even though you are gone, you will always be remembered. I can never thank you enough.

Joe Zein, MD, PhD, MBA

Respiratory Institute and Lerner Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic

One of Rob's participatory word diagrams that kept students and colleagues on our toes.

Rob made complex equations fun. Note the pizza as a variable. And the cat as his signature. This is classic Rob.

Dr. Igo was genuinely one of the best professors I have ever had the pleasure of learning from, not only because he went out of his way to ensure that I could tackle the subject's challenge, but also because he always tried to teach in a kind and encouraging manner.

Outside of how he made his students feel, it was always great to see his quirky personality shine through when he talked at Enigma or in class. He always seemed so fascinated with the complex genetic things that half of us struggled to even wrap our minds around. If only there was more time to learn from such a good soul, and I'll miss his funny/odd comments.

Jasmine M. Olvany
PhD Candidate in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences
Case Western Reserve University

It’s hard to capture all the ways Rob enriched our sometimes dull academic world. He was a brilliant teacher and collaborator and could distill extremely difficult concepts down to make them accessible to anyone. 

He was a true scholar with deep knowledge on a variety of subjects, but before you could feel the least bit intimidated he would disarm you with a joke, a random bit of trivia, or a photo of his cat. He was a great colleague and a wonderful friend, and I will miss him dearly.     

William (Will) S. Bush, PhD

Associate Professor, PQHS

Cat doodles: In the margins of notes, on the whiteboard, pinned on his door.

Rob loved bubble chairs and tested them out whenever he found one.

 

 

Rob was my go-to-person whenever I needed genetic epi advice. His door was always open and he never hesitated to make time for a chat or share a smile or two. He will be sorely missed. 

Farren Briggs, Ph.D. Sc.M.

Assistant Professor, PQHS

 

 

When I first met Rob he was shy and quiet, but after getting to know him better we would talk more, and so I got to see his quirky and funny side.

Rob loved to eat – he tasted everything on the table at department parties and meetings. I would always ask him how something tasted before I tried it. Rob was famous for not letting any food go to waste, and would pack up leftovers to take home. He had a big appetite and a big heart. I am truly going to miss him.

Tuesday Gibson
Department Assistant III, PQHS

 

 

 

The world lost a gentle, bright soul this past weekend. I don't know what we'll do without him, but my hope is that we will find a way to honor his memory by, at the very least, raising awareness about mental health issues among friends and colleagues.

Jessica Cooke Bailey, PhD, MA

Assistant Professor, PQHS

 

Rob and Jessica snorkeling after a conference, held in Hawaii in 2018.

Cats can be used to illustrate many complex topics. Classic Rob. 

It is a shock to hear about Dr. Igo’s passing. Dr. Igo was the instructor of one of my early courses in 2016. I loved his course so much since I always could learn something new, accompanied by his sense of humor. Dr. Igo was so patient and helpful with all my questions, usually a lot, and never slighted any of them. I still remember once I asked him about a package in R but he wasn’t sure of that and by the next day he sent me a detailed email to explain the package including how to use it and possible bugs I would meet.

During the following three years here at CWRU, Dr. Igo provided me a lot of help and support for my research. I could always walk in to have a little discussion or conversation with him even without a reservation. I remember I didn’t know how to do PCA and went to him when I started my dissertation project. He presented me the whole process in bash and even sent me detailed example files. His dedication and support to me and all other students and faculty members made him an amazing teacher and friend. Dr. Igo will be remembered forever and we are going to miss him so much. 

Ju Zhang, PhD candidate, PQHS

I only knew Dr. Igo briefly during the spring 2020 semester of Stats for Gen Epi. He was one of the most understanding instructors I've had. He will be dearly missed. The world needs more people like Dr. Igo. 

Lauren Cruz, MPH, PhD candidate, Genetic Epidemiology, PQHS

I’m a genetic epidemiologist and overlapped with Rob at Case (I finished my PhD in 2007). I am deeply saddened by his loss. On a big scale he made the world a better place with his sense of humor and his humanity, it breaks my heart that he was struggling with his mental health when he provided those around him with so much kindness and laughter. Although we only overlapped for a few years, scientifically Rob was someone I could always reach out to and I knew he would respond; he was the definition of collegial. On a personal level we shared a love of travel and cats. I will miss him. My deepest condolences to his family.

Lara E. Sucheston-Campbell MS, PhD
Associate Professor, College of Pharmacy
Associate Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine
Core Faculty, Translational Data Analytics Institute
The Ohio State University

I met Rob as fellow graduates of the Wijsman lab at the University of Washington. We also overlapped for a short period as faculty at CWRU. Over the years we have remained in contact through conferences and alumni receptions. I will miss his kindness and humor.

Katrina Goddard, PhD
Director, Translational and Applied Genomics
Kaiser Permanente - Center for Health Research

Rob was an integral member of our Genetics of Microbial Keratitis Study Team. He was a cherished co-investigator and contributor, who served behind-the-scenes as the master of our database and statistical analyses. He brought intellectual integrity and rigor to all of his work, advised our students, and contributed to our studies of contact lens-related material and compliance risk factors associated with microbial keratitis. This laid the foundation for our future genetic analyses of this condition for which he will be immensely missed.
His contributions will never be forgotten and will always be acknowledged.

Loretta Szczotka-Flynn, OD, PHD
Professor: CWRU Departments of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and PQHS
Director; Contact Lens Service, University Hospitals Eye Institute

Sudha Iyengar, PhD
Professor and Vice Chair for Research, PQHS
Professor, Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences, School of Medicine
Professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, School of Medicine
Member, GI Cancer Genetics Program, Case Comprehensive Cancer Center

Not only was Rob an invaluable contributor to many research teams, but he was loved as a teacher. So many students loved his class, learned practical analytical skills from him, and he was always available to help every student that asked. As a valued collaborator, he left his fingerprints on so many research projects. He was so intelligent, knowing so much about so many scientific topics, and he was so easy to get along with. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten.

Catherine Stein, PhD
Associate Professor, PQHS

Rob opened up to me about his struggles in graduate school after I had confessed to him my recent suicide attempt. He was the one professor that related to me and made sure that I was OK both emotionally and in the progression of my studies. He was a teacher, coworker, and a trusted confidant.

In remembering Rob, I would like it know that he is one of the reasons why I am still around to this day. His compassion and willingness to listen, as well as his willingness to also make himself vulnerable about his struggles, helped me find my way through. I will miss him tremendously.

Leighanne Main, PhD candidate, PQHS

It didn't take long for Rob to become my favorite professor. I regularly attended his office hours for guidance on assignments, but our conversations usually drifted into talking about our undergraduate Alma Mater, Oberlin College, or our favorite animal: cats. As a professor, he was always charismatic, quirky, warm, funny, and he genuinely cared about the wellbeing of his students. He was the same as a friend. I was an anxious mess the day of my dissertation defense, but seeing Rob in the audience greatly eased my apprehension. After I graduated and began applying to jobs, Rob was one of the first people I asked for a recommendation because I knew he would be supportive and write something thoughtful. I'm now a statistical reviewer at the FDA and I don't know if I would have gotten this job without his help.

Haley Gittleman, PhD
Statistical Reviewer, Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER)

I first met Rob in the fall of 2015 when I was a first-year Ph.D. student rotating in the lab of Dr. Jonathan Haines. After I joined the Haines Lab, Rob served as my mentor throughout my predoctoral training. He provided invaluable guidance on my research projects and was a co-author on all of my publications. At department events, Rob typically introduced himself as a “biostatistician at large,” which perfectly illustrates his role in my training and in the department.

Any time I had biostatistics questions, I went to Rob. Often times, this led to long conversations in his office about the statistical approaches I was using for my projects or about statistics in general. His enthusiasm for biostatistics and genetic epidemiology was unmatched, and his knowledge of the principles of these fields seemed to be endless. His attention to detail enhanced anything he was working on or contributing to. I always appreciated his detailed edits and thoughtful comments on manuscripts and presentations. From substantial comments about test statistics to reminding me to include slide numbers on my slides (he was non-negotiable on slide numbers), Rob greatly shaped my graduate training and made me a better scientist.

I also was a student in Rob’s PQHS 452 (then EPBI 452) course, which was one of the most influential courses in my graduate education. Rob was an exemplary teacher who genuinely loved what he taught and enjoyed teaching it. His whole demeanor lit up in the classroom, and his enthusiasm for the material was infectious. He could make anything a teachable moment because he was also an expert and animated communicator. Whenever he gave a seminar or journal club in the department or at a conference, he made the material approachable and engaging to anyone, including individuals without a statistics background. I always looked forward to his talks because I always learned something new or considered something in a new light. In addition to his intellect and teaching abilities, Rob was dependable as a colleague and faculty member. It would be difficult to imagine a department event without him. He was always there for seminars, defenses, and social events.

Beyond his professional and educational impact, I will remember Rob for being quirky, thoughtful, detail-oriented, and fun. He knew some of the most obscure facts and could relay them at the drop of a hat. Some of my fondest memories of Rob include experiences from conference trips, especially the 2018 Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) Conference. When we attended this conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, Rob, Jessica, and I went on a Turtle Canyon Snorkel Cruise by Catamaran. It was such a unique experience to share with one another. In addition to the numerous turtles we saw, Rob pointed out that he saw a humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (Hawaiian name for a reef triggerfish) and later shared with us a song he knew that mentioned this fish called “My Little Grass Shack.”

That evening, Rob, Jessica, Yeunjoo, and I attended a lūʻau at the Sea Life Park in Hawaii. On our way to the lūʻau, our coach bus pulled over on the side of the road on a cliffside because there was a gorgeous view of the ocean. The three of us took pictures of the beautiful scenery and of each other with the beautiful vistas. Rob took pictures with his digital camera; he was one of the few people I knew that still used a digital camera rather than the camera on his phone. To get a group picture, instead of asking one of the other people from the bus to take our picture, we decided to take a selfie. It’s one of my favorite photos from that trip. We may not have gotten much of the scenery in the selfie, but we captured what was most important: the fun we were having with each other.

As I reflect on my memories of Rob, I think of the following quote from the musical WICKED: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz: “I do believe I have been changed for the better, and because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” I truly believe this quote summarizes his impact on me and the department at large. Because we knew Rob, we have been changed for the better and for good.   

Andrea Waksmunski, PhD, Post-Doctoral Researcher, PQHS