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Dr. Crotty Alexander: Embracing Every Opportunity, from Medical School to ATS

May 2016
Laura Crotty Alexander, MD

Laura Crotty Alexander,

When Laura Crotty Alexander, MD, graduated from Duke University, she faced a tough decision: go to graduate school to study Immunology, or go to medical school? She had majored in biology and spent years in a brain tumor immunology lab and loved it. But she also considered herself an extrovert and wondered if patient care would suit her better.

When she was unexpectedly offered a graduate student position—without applying or interviewing—she was forced to admit that her heart was more aligned with clinical medicine, so she applied to medical school.

Later, in her third year at Duke Medical School, she was awarded a Clinical Research Training Program fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, and decided to take advantage of it.

“I loved it. In fact, I stayed at the NIH so long that I got behind in the credits I needed to graduate,” she says. “To catch up, I had to sign up for rotations that offered the most credits, and those were in critical care—and I realized I loved that, too!”

Today, all these interests and passions have converged, and although the majority of her time is now spent in the lab, she also cares for patients and teaches in her role as assistant professor at the University of California-San Diego and staff physician at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

“Laura approaches challenges in both the clinical and research realms with intellectual rigor, curiosity, and creativity. That and her relentlessly positive attitude and great sense of humor inspire all of us who work with her,” says Jess Mandel, MD, professor of medicine and associate dean at UCSD.

This year she is being recognized as one of the ATS’s Rising Stars, selected by the Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology Assembly. Currently, her research focus is on electronic cigarettes and their effects on the lungs and body. Until now, this work has been conducted on mice and in human and murine cells. But in the summer of 2016, she and her team will begin e-cigarette studies in humans for the first time.

“Many people think e-cigarettes must be better, because conventional smoking is so incredibly bad for you,” she says. “But we need proof, and currently don’t know what inhaling these chemicals will do over time—it looks like they alter the lungs and body through repetitive induction of inflammatory pathways, which is likely to cause pathologic changes in the lungs and lead to permanent lung damage.”

Dr. Crotty Alexander was invited to pitch a research proposal at the ATS 2015 International Conference in Denver, Colorado. “Competing in the BEAR Cage at ATS 2015 was a wonderful experience. It was fun to defend my research verbally, which is very different than defending it on paper. Also, putting together a grant proposal as an oral presentation was an exciting challenge. Meeting the other contestants (one of whom was one of my Duke Med ’03 classmates), and seeing them present and defend their amazing work was humbling. The award I received has moved my e-cigarette work forward, such that I’ve published two original research articles and obtained enough pilot data to support NIH R01 and VA Merit award submissions.” In the future, Dr. Crotty Alexander hopes to obtain funding on both e-cigarette and hypoxia inducible factor (HIF) projects, such that she can contribute on an even broader scale to science.

She says one thing she finds most rewarding about research is answering questions and seeing all the hard work her team puts into it pay off. But, she says, she finds it almost equally fulfilling to brainstorm questions then design ways to find answers. Patient care is also highly rewarding, she says, as is her role as an educator—particularly watching her clinical trainees get excited about physiology and help patients.

Eventually, she would like to spend more dedicated time as a mentor—she says she herself benefitted greatly from mentorship from Victor Nizet, MD, and Atul Malhotra, MD, among many others.

“Laura’s research is inspired by deceptively simple yet unanswered questions that arise at the patients’ bedside. It is here where the mysteries unraveled by basic research studies emphasizing both host and pathogen sides of the equation have the greatest translational impact. Her enthusiasm and ingenuity reward both her trainees and her collaborators,” says Dr. Nizet, professor and vice chair for basic research, Department of Pediatrics, chief, Division of Host-Microbe Systems and Therapeutics and professor, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the UCSD.

While still a fellow, Dr. Crotty Alexander got involved with the ATS when she was asked to be a member on the Training Committee. Later, she was appointed vice chair of that group, and this year she became chair of the Training Committee as well as co-chair of the new Online Education Committee. She has also been on the Early Career Professionals Working Group for the Assembly on Allergy, Inflammation and Immunology (AII) for four years, the AII Program Committee for three years, and for the past year has been on the ATS Board of Directors.

In these varied roles, she’s met with junior physicians and scientists and has been able to share her insights into the value of the ATS.

“Getting involved with the ATS is one of the best things a young physician or scientist can do,” she says. “Among other things, it gives people opportunities to meet possible collaborators and senior leaders who one day may be reviewing the papers and grants you write. Participating in the ATS gets you recognized and lets people know who you are and what you are doing.”

When she is not working, Dr. Crotty Alexander enjoys traveling with her husband, Tom Alexander, and reading novels. A recent travel highlight was a December 2015 trip to Malaysia to attend the 20th Congress of Asian Pacific Society of Respirology (APSR) as a recipient of an ATS Young Investigator Award. They have also greatly enjoyed travels to Egypt, South Africa, India, and Italy.



You can watch finalists of the 2nd Annual BEAR Cage Competition at the ATS 2016 International Conference in San Francisco, California. Don’t miss it! Sunday, May 15 from 11:30 a.m. – 1:15 p.m. in the Moscone Center, Room 105 (South Building, Lower Level).

Last Reviewed: September 2017