Staff Spotlight with Georgina Armstrong
Our Communications Manager, Katie M. Kanagawa, interviewed Georgina Armstrong, Research Program Director in the Department of Epidemiology & Population Health, about her work on participant recruitment in the field during Hurricane Harvey and for the Bondy Lab’s Gliogene Project.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? How did you get here (to Stanford Epidemiology & Population Health)? Was there something in particular that attracted you to the fields of science, health and disease?
I have always been interested in public health and healthcare and when I was a child, I always thought that I would go to medical school. After taking a class in Health Economics my junior year at Wellesley College, I realized how many different facets of public health there were and decided to stop taking pre-med classes and concentrate on a career in public health. I graduated from college with a degree in Women’s Studies and Economics and went straight to graduate school in Public Health. When I graduated with my MPH in 2003, I applied to a bunch of jobs and ended up getting a job at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Epidemiology working with Melissa Bondy on a familial pancreatic cancer study. I did not think that when I accepted that job, I would be working with her 18 years later at Stanford! I’ve been at Stanford for a little over a year and work remotely from my house in Houston, Texas.
The most interesting thing for me about public health is tackling healthcare issues from a population level as opposed to an individual level.
I understand you have worked quite a bit over the years on recruiting in the field. Can you tell us about this kind of work? What does it entail and why is it important?
Study participants are such an integral piece of successful human subjects research. Depending on your research question and population, it is sometimes important to go “into the field” to reach a participant as opposed to asking them to come to you. This can be particularly important for low income and minority groups.
Can you give a specific example of when you engaged in this work in the past?
Hurricane Harvey was a devastating Category 4 Hurricane that caused catastrophic flooding in the Houston area in August of 2017. At this time, I was working at Baylor College of Medicine with Melissa Bondy. We knew that there would be many public health concerns with individuals who were affected by the storm. Many people had houses that sustained substantial damage after having up to 6 feet of flood water in their house. Within a week, we obtained IRB approvals to get into the field and recruit people who were affected by flood waters. In the study, we included an exposure and demographic questionnaire as well as sample collection (nasal swab, saliva sample, fecal sample). With the biosamples, we conducted microbiome analysis and looked for mold exposures. We also collected a silicone wristband to look for chemical exposures.
What has driven you to pursue this work (recruitment in the field)? OR What have you loved most, or found the most rewarding, about it?
I like solving problems and the field of epidemiology is like a large public health puzzle. Epidemiologists are like disease detectives. If I didn’t work in epidemiology, I think I would be a private investigator. I love to “dive deep” and try to investigate and solve problems.
You are currently working on the Bondy Lab’s Gliogene Project. Can you tell us about this project? What is the important problem you are trying to solve and how are you (and your colleagues) approaching it?
One of the projects I’ve worked on with Melissa Bondy for over 15 years is Gliogene, which is a familial brain tumor study. With this study, we are working on identifying genes related to glioma, which is the most malignant type of brain tumor. With some of our earlier work, we identified one gene called POT1. With the current grant, we are working on identifying additional genes that are related to glioma. Once we identify the genes, we are working with collaborators at Baylor College of Medicine to functionalize them in an animal model.
One of the things that is really hard about this research is that glioma is very rare, affecting about 20,000 people in the US each year. We estimate that about 5% of these cases have a family history. The average survival for the most aggressive type of glioma, glioblastoma, is only 12-18 months. To participate in the study, we need a saliva or blood sample for genetic analysis. It is challenging to reach eligible families and participants since the disease is rare and the median survival is short. In the next year, we are hoping to develop some new recruitment strategies with developing a short film about our research and using social media to advertise the study.
Is there advice you would like to offer to other researchers interested in learning more about the fields of epidemiology and population health?
This is the best time to learn more about the field of epidemiology and population health. With the Covid-19 pandemic, epidemiology has finally become a household word! The world has seen that the discipline of epidemiology is essential to the fight against disease.
One more question for Georgina
What (non-scientific) hobbies do you pursue in your free time? Why do you like this activity?
I love pilates! After spending so many years sitting all day at a desk, I’ve really found pilates to be so restorative to my mind, body, and soul! If I had more free time, I would take the training to become a pilates instructor. I take pilates at a classical pilates studio either virtually or in person 5-7 times a week.