Linnie Golightly, MD, Associate Professor in Medicine, Microbiology & Immunology and Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, recently assumed the role of ASTMH President. Her research focuses on infectious diseases endemic to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), with an emphasis on malaria, as well as factors affecting the retention of women, underrepresented minorities and citizens of LMICs in academic careers. She recently joined science writer Matthew Davis for a conversation over Zoom to discuss her priorities for the coming year and her thoughts on a number of areas—from the recent rise of anti-science sentiments to maintaining funding for biomedical research to how family and faith keep her grounded.
What interested you about becoming President of the Society?
This Society always has been my home in many ways. I came to it when I was just beginning my career. I had received one of my first grants and it included funding that allowed me to travel to the Annual Meeting. And I really felt “these are my people.” The Society became a place that has nurtured me and given me guidance.
So when I was approached (about seeking the presidency), my first thought was whether I had anything to offer and my second thought was whether I would be any good at it. And I decided that if I was ultimately offered the position by my peers, I would give it a try. I thought I could help provide opportunities for others at this critical juncture as we are coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are some things that you would like to focus on in the coming year as President of this large and sprawling organization?
The way you described it is actually part of the challenge. We have a “big umbrella” and how do we keep all of the members of our family vibrant and happy and able to thrive? That is the challenge for every ASTMH president.
I would like to enhance the membership and leadership of those who are not well represented in the Society, including members from low and middle-income countries. We are the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene but we span the globe. I also am a Black American and we do not have full representation of all of the American voices. How can we make sure that everyone has an opportunity to serve, both around the world and from my own diaspora?
I also want to engage younger generations—looking at entry-level grants and other opportunities that allow more people to be exposed to global health and then go on to careers in global health. At the same time, I want to engage all generations in our Society. We have many people at mid-career and late-career, and they have much to offer.
You are coming into this role at a very challenging time for both the Society and infectious disease research. And the challenges involve the current surge of anti-science sentiments and, on the funding front, concerns that there could be deep cuts in U.S. support for biomedical research. Let’s start with the first part, your thoughts on the rise of anti-science voices.
I think we have to be very forthright about defending science. I also think that in talking to people about science, we must listen to their concerns and not talk down to them. This is not to excuse any of the horrific behavior of the anti-science movement. Peter Hotez
is a former ASTMH President and has the borne the brunt of a lot of this and valiantly spoken out in defense of science despite it. But we really need to be honest with people and realize that they can understand more than we academicians may give them credit for.
For example, here at my institution we have had forums where we talk about how vaccines are made and go through the history of vaccine science and provide people with information. But we don’t say that vaccines are safer than water. Some people do have side effects and in trying to avoid anti-science sentiments, we need to be careful of a tendency to oversell, because that’s something anti-vaxxers will run with.
We also need to acknowledge that in the past there have been mistakes and even malfeasance at times. For example, some of the concern over vaccines in the Black community, from which I come, stems from horrific things that were done in the past in the name of medical science.
Meanwhile, how do you engage the conversation about federal funding where one outcome of today’s polarized political environment could be significant cuts for agencies like the NIH and the CDC?
We as a country need to decide whether we want to continue be a prominent place where scientific discoveries are made or are we going to make decisions that stifle innovation and new discoveries? The Society must be part of that conversation, especially in advocating for the importance of the work our members do around the world.
The United States is part of a global community and as the COVID-19 pandemic showed all too clearly, something can come from a different part of the world and shut down our society and economy and end the lives of many. So, it’s not theoretical at all. New things will come up. For example, we are seeing a rise in drug-resistant microorganisms around the world. We need multidisciplinary teams of scientists and medical professionals working in concert to deal with such problems, which pose a threat to us all.
I understand that people want to see that taxpayer money is being used wisely, but we must not put out the light of discovery.
You have been closely involved in discussions at the Annual Meeting on increasing diversity and inclusion in global health and also decolonizing global health—and one of your titles at Weill Cornell Medicine is Associate Dean of Diversity. How do you view the state of these conversations, which can be difficult and challenging because, ultimately, they are trying to change the status quo?
As I said at the first plenary where I was invited to talk about this issue
, this will be an ongoing conversation. It is like any relationship where you have to constantly go back and look and think and talk. What are the good things from the past that we want to keep with us and what are things that were not helpful or even harmful? You will never know if you don’t talk about them.
At the last couple of Annual Meetings I have invited Dr. Renee Alexander
from our Cornell University Ithaca campus to discuss the Breaking Bread initiative, where people have conversations about things that are difficult to talk about. She integrated the principles of Breaking Bread into our sessions. The strength of our Society is that we have the courage to do that. And maybe we won’t always get it right. But we are strong enough to keep talking issues through and in doing so, figure out the best path to move forward together.
Tell us a little bit about your areas of interest. What is sparking your curiosity these days on the science side of things?
I have been very fortunate to be working with people who are looking at the pathogenesis of cerebral malaria through the lens of microvascular repair. About 20 percent of children who survive cerebral malaria have neurocognitive deficits that can affect them long-term. We’re looking at the signals that cause some people to have good repair or others bad repair with long term issues.
I work with people in stem cell research, vascular biologists and people looking at the potential role of exosomes, which are small, membrane-bound particles in the blood that carry signals. For example, exosomes have been identified in cancer for helping to seed the soil leading to the development of metastases long after the primary case.
There is also a lot of research underway across our Society that interests me aside from my world of malaria research. For example, we have many new voices involved in research related to the health of the planet.
You have taken on considerable responsibilities, in the many roles you play at Cornell and now as ASTMH president. What do you do outside of your professional life that keeps you fresh and grounded?
My family keeps me grounded and so does the good Lord above, because I am a person of faith. I have a husband of more than 35 years and two great kids. The youngest just ran off to college and is going into forestry and the other is an editor of scientific and business publications. I like to spend a lot of time with them.
As a person of faith, I try to remember not to get too full of myself and make sure I have time for people and things that really matter. I think it’s important to find the space to connect with people—to remember why you’re here and, if you have been given opportunities, to think about whether you are doing the right things with them.