Aspirations of a Singing Doctor

For a Jamaican, Cosmo Fraser [pictured left] has an unusual first name. His mother had honored the request of their English family doctor named Cosmo Harvey to name her son after him. "My family had respect for him, ... and in Jamaica respect goes a long way," Fraser explains. Little did anyone expect that Fraser would take up more than the doctor's name. Years later, Fraser became a physician-scientist who specializes in kidney diseases. Apart from being a reggae musician and a role model to young minorities, science fulfills his dream of making people's lives better.

Multitalented From the Start

While growing up in Jamaica, Fraser developed a love for music. He admired American R&B and reggae artists and sang every chance he got. "On my grandmother's front step, I'd sing to the latest hit songs on the radio to anyone who would listen," recalls Fraser, who also won singing competitions and performed in school choirs and independence celebrations in Jamaica. After high school, he considered a singing career, but another passion took over.

Fraser loved school and found math and science to be "easy." His teachers from elementary to high school recognized Fraser's academic skills, and this fueled Fraser's interest even more. The career of one Jamaican teacher, John Williams, particularly inspired Fraser. Fraser admired his teaching skills and liked that Williams was a regular young man who came back to his home country a "brilliant man" after studying in the United States. Indeed, being good in math and science and pursuing a career in these fields is "a good thing and didn't make you a nerd." In Jamaica, people are respected for their intelligence, Fraser says.

Making His Scientific Dreams Come True

In 1970, after high school, Fraser emigrated to the United States. Out of his love for math, he attended Columbia University in New York to study electrical engineering and computer science. However, while dating a premed student, he became fascinated with medicine. After getting his B.S. from Columbia, he pursued a medical degree at the State University of New York, Brooklyn.

By this time, Fraser focused more on his studies, giving up amateur singing competitions (some of which he won) and gigs that he used to do while at Columbia. At medical school, he became "really fond" of studying kidney diseases (nephrology) and decided he wanted to specialize in this area.

After obtaining his medical degree in 1979, Fraser took various prestigious positions treating and managing kidney problems at San Francisco's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but he also completed fellowships and moved up the professorship ladder at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)--"a great place for nephrologists." During the next 2 decades, he eagerly jumped into basic science research. He worked in the lab of a respected kidney disease expert, UCSF's Allen Arieff, and made significant headway in research on hyponatremia (a postsurgery condition in which the body becomes abnormally low in salt).

From the 1980s through the 1990s, Fraser, Arieff, and their colleagues first defined hyponatremia as the culprit in numerous deaths, seizures, and comas--particularly in women--after they have had routine surgeries. Before their work, "no one knew for sure what was going on under those circumstances," says Fraser. Their groundbreaking research suggested that these patients experienced complications because the fluids they received after surgery, dextrose and water, caused the brain to swell. This happens, Fraser says, because salt in the brain attracts these fluids, which contained little or no salt. To avoid brain swelling, the researchers recommended using isotonic fluid, which has more salt. Today, doctors worldwide no longer give water and dextrose to their patients after surgery, according to Fraser.

Fraser's work in hyponatremia and other areas including uremia (a manifestation of kidney failure on the brain) has made a great impact in medicine. Arieff, his former mentor, describes Fraser as an "original thinker" who contributed tremendously to the research. For instance, "I had been working on how uremia affects the nervous system for many years when I met Dr. Fraser. ... Fraser came with a whole new approach. I'd been doing research with whole animal models and patients," says Arieff, but "he came up with a molecular biology approach." Consequently, they've learned how to prevent brain malfunction better after kidney failure and changed the way dialysis treatment is performed on patients.

Telling Young Minorities: Dream Big!

Fraser, in turn, appreciates having worked with someone like Arieff. "[With Arieff] I really explored my potential and did the things that I wanted to do," says Fraser. And it didn't matter that Arieff was white and he was black. Fraser adds, "To me, that's what's really remarkable. When you have people with intelligence and talent, and they can see far beyond what's in front of their faces."

Thus, Fraser tries to be a role model to young minorities. "I think being a minority is hard because for some strange reason, in the U.S., people expect less of you," says Fraser. "From what I've seen, not just from my experiences but from other minority scientists, I think the general rule is: You have to work harder to get the same rights and privileges given to others with lesser talents."

Whenever he can, Fraser shares his wisdom with young minorities. In the past, he spoke at the Boys Club and Girls Club in San Francisco. In recent years, he has occasionally talked to college students whenever he visits universities. His messages to them:

  • Your dreams will take you places, so you should have big dreams.

  • All of us can do everything, some better than others, but it has nothing to do with race or culture. People should neither be afraid of their culture nor hide behind it.

  • You should accept your culture and use this knowledge to improve the world around you.

In addition, Fraser's actions helped many minority students get a good start in science. For 10 summers, his lab welcomed minority high school students and showed them how to do research. He also served on several campus committees, such as the Chancellor's Task Force on Diversity and the Minority Student Recruitment and Retention Committee, to help increase the number of minorities in science. In 1999, Fraser received one of UCSF's Martin Luther King Jr. awards for his efforts.

Lost Love

In recent years, Fraser has increasingly pursued a long-lost love, singing and writing reggae music. He started performing again in the mid-1990s under the stage name COSMO. This year, he released his third album, Get Up and Jump. For him, the messages of his music about justice, achievements, social consciousness, and love are just other ways to make people "good."

Fraser is considering putting aside medicine for music, for a while. However, "my love for medicine is always going to be there, so I have to come to some balance, I think, where I do justice to both," Fraser says.

Whatever solution Fraser comes up with, he will most likely be content, because he is still helping people. He currently teaches nephrology part-time at UCSF and practices medicine at Plumas Street Dialysis Center in Yuba City, California. He has a wife and three sons.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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