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A breath of fresh air

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Online

Driven in part by her own experiences with asthma, Linda Armstrong, MD ’88 has committed her life to providing effective medical assistance to patients suffering from respiratory conditions.

When her mother helped Linda Armstrong, MD ’88, secure an internship at a pathology laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh during Linda’s sophomore year of high school, neither knew that the event would spark a lifelong passion for medicine. Run through the University of Pittsburgh, the lab’s climate of camaraderie and collaboration bolstered Armstrong’s spirits, while the application of science gave her a clear vision of the benefits research could provide to humanity.

“The lab helped confirm for me that health is a primary human need,” says Armstrong, who today directs an international research team focused on lung disease. “To have a skillset that, wherever you live, whichever city you’re in, or country, you can make a positive difference—that was very appealing to me. I didn’t understand everything that was happening in that first lab, but I knew that I needed to learn more about it.”

Armstrong’s next stop after high school? Harvard, where she took premed classes in anticipation of attending medical school, and majored in history (the history of science, to be specific). During her undergraduate years Armstrong continued to work at the lab at Pitt during the summers, and in other labs. This continued to fuel her interest in academic medicine and medicine in general.

It was at Yale School of Medicine that Armstrong had the encounters with patients that shaped her interest in pulmonary medicine and research. “I have asthma myself, fairly mild, so I know what it feels like not to take breath,” says Armstrong. “In medical school I was struck by patients coming into the emergency room who, a few weeks ago, were otherwise healthy people who’d unexpectedly encountered a life-threatening experience. The rapidity of the presentation was dramatic.”

One event in particular stood out to Armstrong. During Armstrong’s initial Intensive Care Unit (ICU) rotation, a young woman, around 20 years old, was admitted. Armstrong worked with her overnight while she was intubated, and was able to extubate her the next morning. “It was incredibly rewarding to me,” she says.

Armstrong says that the Yale System of medical education, which emphasizes collaboration over competition, laid a foundation for positive experiences in medicine and in research. She found that it encouraged an ethos of teamwork, while also forging a steely reservoir of internal motivation. “At first, I was amazed that the Yale System worked,” says Armstrong, “but since graduation, I’ve seen how it has helped me throughout my career and life.”

Also of note at YSM was the quality of faculty, according to Armstrong. “Jim Comer was a great mentor, and I appreciated interactions with him,” says Armstrong. “Mark Horowitz of osteo immunology, was also a generous mentor.” At Yale, Armstrong was able to catch up on lab work that she hadn’t done during her undergraduate time at Harvard. Fortunately, the labs she chose focused on immunology during the very beginning of that field.

In residency at Columbia and during a fellowship at NYU, Armstrong continued to research pulmonary conditions. She found the field compelling, partly because of the effectiveness of treatment available at the time; also, though, because of the opportunity to push the boundaries of what was possible.

Now, Armstrong leads the Global Respiratory Development Unit at Novartis Pharmaceutical Company, where her knowledge and decisions potentially have a global impact. “The ability to take on new challenges and stretch yourself is something that’s valued at Novartis,” says Armstrong. “When I started at Yale, I had no idea that the sort of job I have now even existed ... it may not have!” Armstrong says the fundamentals she learned at YSM helped build a solid base for her future endeavors. It was only a matter of time before she found a position that allowed her to help patients and pursue research.