Schulich school of Medicine and Dentistry logo Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry

From the pool to the bench

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By Ciara Parsons, BA'15

A decorated former competitive swimmer, Jake Armstrong’s athletic prowess has earned him both national and international recognition. Now, a third-year MD/PhD Candidate, he has competed in the Pan American games, previously qualified for Team Canada’s Olympic trials and secured a spot in the City of London’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

Praising the impact competitive swimming has had on his life, Armstrong says competitive swimming inspired his work ethic and instilled a greater sense of discipline in his life—skills he admits he didn’t really understand prior to becoming involved with the sport.

Likening the process of training for the Team Canada Olympic swimming qualifying rounds to that of which he went through when applying and preparing for medical school, Armstrong is exceptionally focused and not afraid to take on big challenges.  

Citing his father, Dr. Jerrold Armstrong, an oral maxillofacial surgeon by practise and Associate Professor at Schulich Dentistry, as a major influencer of his interests and ambitions, Armstrong’s inclination toward science began early.

When Armstrong was growing up, he frequented yard sales in search of old appliances to buy, deconstruct and then reassemble. He had a great interest in knowing ‘how things work’, and this state of curiosity has remained a constant for him, serving as a source of motivation.

Armstrong began his studies in medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry after graduating from Western University with a BSc in Anatomy and Cell Biology. Fresh out of his first year of medical school, he became involved with the Summer Research Training Program (SRTP), where he worked in the lab of David O’Gorman, PhD, studying Dupuytren’s Disease.

Receiving the Dr. Glen S. Wither Award for his outstanding participation in the SRTP program, Armstrong said, “After working in the lab, I realized that research needed to be a major part of my life, so I switched into the MD/PhD program.”

His thesis research, which he is completing with supervisor Dr. Cindy Hutnik, is focused on looking for new ways to modulate the wound-healing process associated with glaucoma surgery and reduce the overall long-term complications experienced by patients.

Armstrong is making use of a 3D bio-artificial tissue model to test his hypothesis and is studying how different chemicals affect glaucoma patients’ wound healing. He is also using retrospective patient data collected from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) to determine if certain variables, like medication exposure or medical history, influence positive or negative outcomes in this patient population. If variables can be pinpointed, there may be potential for the development of therapeutics.

Once risk and protective factors have been established, Armstrong will simulate them in an in-vitro model as a means of elucidating the biological mechanisms that underlie these factors and establish intervention methods.

With over-healing presenting as a common issue in glaucoma surgery patients, this translational approach to research will ideally improve the recovery process for this affected group.

Though he doesn’t have definitive results yet, he says the data that has been collected so far is encouraging and exciting.

Thankful for the great mentorship he has experienced over the years, Armstrong, now a lab co-supervisor, aims to ‘pay it forward’ and mentor students as best as he can.

“Teaching is one of those times you receive instant gratification. When you are explaining something to someone and you see that light go on—that is just a great feeling,” he said.

Charles Trelford, one of the three students Armstrong co-supervises, began working in the Hutnik lab in October 2016, and credits the experience for motivating him to enroll in Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s direct-entry physiology and pharmacology PhD program, which he will begin in September 2017.

“Working in the lab has been both fulfilling and challenging. However, Jake [Armstrong] and other members of the Hutnik lab are always available to brainstorm and tackle the daily obstacles faced in a basic sciences laboratory. The fact that we work as a team, rather than individuals, is one reason our lab is a successful workplace and a positive learning experience for students,” said Trelford.

Speaking about the highlights of his time spent at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Armstrong says the people he has met have made this journey worthwhile.

“What keeps me engaged with my research and my studies is the people I work with. It’s great working with people who inspire and motivate you,” said Armstrong. “Failure is a part of research, of course, but if you have a bad team, these failures will be amplified. If you have a good team, failures will be learning opportunities and you will come out stronger and better. I have met so many people at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry who are excellent team members.”

Armstrong also recognizes the support he has received from his tight-knit group of friends he formed in the medical program.

“The support group of friends I have is really important to me and has helped me through some of my struggles. We work as a team and strive to better ourselves together,” he said. “I always try to offer research opportunities to them when I can. So far, I have published papers with seven of my friends.”

As for the future, leading with his thesis interests, Armstrong would like to specialize in ophthalmology because of the research potential available and the advancements happening in the field.

“The pace of innovation is really quick in the field of ophthalmology and that keeps me excited about it. There are almost no technologies older than 15 years in this specialty and the surgeries related to ophthalmology fit my skill-set,” he said.