Robert Armstrong​​​

Creating an endowed fund for students​

Why would an individual who has contributed so very much to AKU, as both a medical leader and donor, wish to contribute still more through his estate plan?  To this individual, the reason is as simple as it is obvious:  someone who has the capacity to help AKU further, should do so.

A Canadian from Vancouver, Dr. Robert Armstrong was the first in his family to attend university.  Inspired by an uncle in public health, Bob wanted to be a physician from an early age.  His choice of university, Simon Fraser, was felicitous:  the university was small, progressive and ever-so-slightly radical — the perfect grounding for someone the hallmark of whose career would be viewing things differently.  It was at Simon Fraser that Bob first learned the value of faculty mentors who were interested in students as individuals.

As an undergraduate in a strong Department of Biology, Bob was drawn to research.  That inclination was strengthened by his first summer job, a research assistant for a federal government silviculture project.  During that summer, he spent most of his time, not in a laboratory, but planting trees in experimental patches of land in Northern British Columbia — a territory renowned for the aggressiveness of its mosquitoes!

Undeterred by this experience — an experience he would, however, not repeat — Bob went on to develop an interest in the burgeoning field of neuroendocrinology, the influence of the neuroendocrine system on growth and development.  This led him to an innovative interdisciplinary program in human growth and development at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.  At McMaster, he completed a master's degree and — quite a bit later — a Ph.D.  His studies and research at McMaster rekindled his interest in medicine.  Working with an even more influential mentor, he discovered that, by specializing in pediatrics, he could combine his interest in growth and development with that in clinical medicine.  An additional fellowship in the developmental disorders of children followed.

Now married to Nicole, and with the first of their three children, Bob entered medical school, completed the fellowship, went through pediatric training — first at McMaster, and then in Vancouver — and completed his Ph.D.  Needless to say, those years went by in a bit of a blur:  his children recall bedtime readings leading to his falling asleep!

McMaster was not only at the leading edge of health-sciences education:  it was also driving a transformation in the use of evidence in clinical decision making.  The 10 years Bob spent at McMaster greatly influenced his career path.  By pure coincidence, the Dean of Medicine at the time, Dr. Fraser Mustard, was a long-term member of the AKU Board of Trustees.  In the latter part of an enormously influential career, Dr. Mustard was a strong advocate of focusing on early child development.  For Bob, it would later be a great privilege to work with Dr. Mustard on establishing the Institute for Human Development at AKU.

Following his training, Bob joined the University of British Columbia and the BC Children's Hospital.   At the two institutions, he had a team-based clinical practice in child disability and took a leadership role in the evolving discipline of developmental pediatrics, both within the institutions and nationally.  Bob was later the Medical Director of an affiliated health centre for children with disabilities; he then served as the Vice President of Medicine in an amalgamated Children's and Women's Hospital.

In 2000, the University of British Columbia appointed Bob Chair of Pediatrics, and the BC Children's Hospital appointed him Chief of Pediatrics.  With the strong support of the Children's Hospital Foundation, he established a Centre for International Child Health.  For the Centre's launch, Bob invited a world-renowned expert on child health as guest speaker — AKU's very own Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta.  Out of this meeting came the opportunity to spend six months on sabbatical in Karachi, working with both Dr. Bhutta's team and the Department of Pediatrics.  While in Karachi, Bob contributed to the development of clinical services in child disability, as well as to the designing of an innovative study of the role of Lady Health Workers in improving the developmental outcomes of children in the rural communities of Pakistan.  It was during this sabbatical that Bob began to see the powerful influence of AKU and the broader AKDN.

With his sabbatical over, and the project in the capable hands of a junior faculty member in Karachi, Bob returned to Vancouver to complete his second term as Chair of Pediatrics.  In his final year as Chair came an amazing opportunity — to join AKU as the Founding Dean of the Medical College.  The College was part of a 25-year vision of His Highness the Aga Khan to establish a regional liberal arts and science university in East Africa, with health sciences as a major component of that university.  The vision would be transformational — building a private, not-for-profit, development-focused university linked to an integrated healthcare delivery structure across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  The health sciences would be the foundation for education in medicine, nursing and other health disciplines and advance knowledge through research.  Defined as an “academic health system," this structure had enormous potential for broad impact in the region.  Bob saw the opportunity to contribute to such a vision as a unique privilege and accepted the challenge.

Over the next 10 years, the University as a whole, and the Medical College in particular, grew tremendously.  The achievements over those 10 years are perfectly remarkable; those achievements include:

Increasing the size of the faculty from 35 to over 130 (in 2020) — part of a superb strategy to train our own specialists, support them in fellowships throughout the world, and bring them back as junior faculty.  These faculty members have now become the drivers of His Highness's vision.

  • Transitioning to a high-quality teaching hospital that has achieved international accreditation.

  • Establishing Population Health as a foundational structure for education and research, a structure that unites expertise in public health with that in clinical medicine.

  • Introducing new programmes of interdisciplinary research through the recruitment of outstanding international leaders in Women and Child Health, Oncology, Cardiac Sciences and, most recently, Mind and Brain.

  • Establishing, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Health Services Hospital in Dar es Salaam, a Medical College campus in Tanzania with residency programmes and research.

  • Increasing the residency training capacity of existing programmes, introducing innovative new programmes, and leading the development of fellowships so that our residency graduates need no longer leave the country to receive advanced training.

  • Planning and constructing the University Centre, which will have state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories to support the introduction of undergraduate programmes in medicine, nursing and allied-health sciences.

Now that his tenure as Founding Dean has ended, and he has returned to Vancouver, why is Bob including a specific bequest to AKU in his will?  “I do not feel," he said, “that I am leaving AKU.  I am committed to the University and the broader vision of His Highness.  Only through building and sustaining institutional structures can that vision be achieved.  It has been a privilege to work at the University — an unforgettable decade.  I have trained and/or worked in four universities in my career, and I am familiar with many others:  AKU is unique in its mandate and potential for impact.  Those of us who have come to know the University want to continue to contribute.  A gift to AKU is less about giving back than it is giving forward!"

Bob’s future gift will create an endowed fund that will provide cross-institutional research opportunities for undergraduate students who wish to pursue a career in child health. The students could be at AKU, wishing to study at another Africa​​​​n university, or at another African university, wishing to have an elective experience at AKU. Each student will have a defined research project related to child health in East Africa and be under the supervision of an AKU East Africa faculty member. These exchanges will not only provide students with the often-transformational experience of another setting and mentor, but also increase collaboration among institutions in East Africa. Bob’s endowed fund will forever enhance the learning of the students and faculty of East Africa — for which AKU is exceedingly grateful.

[Soon after this story was written, Bob decided to create his endowed fund during his life rather than with a future gift following his passing — for which AKU is also quite grateful!]​