by Meredith Dault
When Gary Armstrong found out that he’d won a Governor General’s Academic Gold medal -- a prize awarded annually to two high-calibre graduating students -- he says he was “incredibly humbled and honoured. I had never really received any awards in my entire life!” Armstrong, who recently graduated with a PhD in biology, says that’s because he is dyslexic. “I didn’t learn to read or write until I was in grade seven,” he explains. “I remember a teacher saying that I would never be a high flyer,” Armstrong says with a laugh, “but if they could see me now!”
Armstrong, 30, is certainly proving his teachers wrong. He is currently pursuing post-doctoral research in neuroscience at the Université de Montréal, where he is studying ALS (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a fatal neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “I am studying the neurogenetic basis of this disease,” Armstrong says, explaining that ALS is usually diagnosed when people hit their mid-fifties. “If you carry a specific mutation in one of a few known genes it will ultimately lead to the development of the disease. I’m looking at how mutations in these particular genes generate ALS pathology.”
But Armstrong says his current research is a “big leap” from the interdisciplinary work he pursued while at Queen’s. Describing himself as a “neurobiologist,” Armstrong says he always felt torn between the biology and neuroscience departments while a student. Studying something called ‘spreading depression’ (which, he is quick to add, has nothing to do with depression, the mental illness), Armstrong looked at the nervous system’s ability to shut down during environmental stress. “It is believed that this is protective for brain or central nervous system tissue,” he says, explaining that both human and animal brains respond in the same way.
“All animals on this planet are faced with challenges in their environment on a day-to-day basis...things like drought, and really cold or hot temperatures.” At their extreme, those stresses affect the brain’s ability to function properly. “If you push it further, the brain tissue eventually dies,” Armstrong explains. “Some animals have particularly fascinating ways of protecting their brains from these harsh stressors.” he says. “In some animals, their brain tries to protect itself by shutting down. A good analogy is switching off your home computer during an electrical storm.”
A Toronto-native, Armstrong did both his undergrad and Master’s degree in the Department of Biology at Queen’s. “I never left,” he laughs about his academic trajectory, “it was crazy! But I had an amazing supervisor who cultivated a passion for science in me. I love my research.” Armstrong jokes that from time to time, he still makes the trip from Montreal to Kingston to do experiments in his old lab at Queen’s. “It was so hard for me to leave!”
When his current post-doc appointment is up, Armstrong says he will entertain the idea of pursuing further research posts before trying for a tenure-track university appointment. For now, he’s happily working on his french in Montreal, and is generally feeling grateful for having found work that he loves. “I’m very fortunate to have found what I love right away,” Armstrong says. “I’m a born scientist. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”