My Research Journey In Optometry

My Research Journey In Optometry

By Tiffany Fung, MCB Major, Class of 2018 (waifung@berkeley.edu)

 

A little bit about myself: I currently work in a vision science lab at the School of Optometry here at Berkeley, and I have participated in URAP for six semesters. During the past two summers, I have advanced my research through the SURF fellowship program.

How I got started in undergraduate research: I came to Berkeley with one year of wet lab experience from working in a cell biology lab in San Diego. I knew I wanted to continue research while at Cal, but I wanted to try something different, something that would not only allow me to pursue a side interest but also that would allow me to interact with patients. I declared my major in Molecular and Cell Biology and intended to pursue a health professional school after graduating.

During the fall of my sophomore year, I applied to a vision science lab that focuses on low-vision and cortical plasticity. Vision science (and optometry) is a significantly different field than biology. Few Berkeley students, especially as early as sophomore year, have any background in the “eyes.” Thus, that first semester was the most challenging time for me as I struggled to find my place within that lab, and as I tried to understand what “vision science research” really entails. I attended lab meetings every week where we discussed a journal article that relates to one of the many projects that are currently being done in the lab. Initially, it was hard to follow the discussions because there were  vision science vocabulary and concepts that I have not learned before. During that first semester, I was trying to gain my professor’s trust by taking on one or two small projects, piloting the experiments, and trying to understand the theory and drive behind each experiment.

That following semester, I gathered couraged and approached my professor to see if there was a bigger project that I could be in charge of. There was, and that project, in fact, became the project that I would work on for more than a year for my MCB honors thesis. This project seeks to understand the development of a preferred retinal locus, or a ‘pseudofovea’, in response to a simulated central scotoma (blind spot). The output of this research will inform the theories as well as training and rehabilitation practices on eye diseases. I learned how to use Matlab (without a programming background) and an advanced Eyetracker to carry out this experiment. Another cool thing about vision science research is learning how to use different equipments and programming tools to implement experiments.

Earlier this year, I started a new research project which tries to understand how our eye movements change when we change the statistics of the natural environment. If we find that eye movements are highly adaptable to the statistics of the visual environment, we could potential modify the visual input, for example, via virtual reality displays, to modify the eye movements of people who suffer from oculomotor impairment or deficiencies. That is a really cool direct application of our research!

I will soon be learning how to use MAIA and the OCT (two new clinical machines) to work with patients with age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly worldwide. I can’t wait to examine their retinas!

Looking back, if I had not asked my professor for a project or gained her trust, I would not have had the invaluable research experience and vision science knowledge I have accrued today. My URAP experiences combined with the SURF summer fellowships immersed me in this work for over two years. A highlight of my undergraduate years was giving a talk at the American Academy of Optometry last year.

Everyone’s undergraduate research experience is different, and different personalities fit different types of labs. To excel and really get the most out of research in my lab, you must be independent, take initiative, ask questions, and be willing to work. Professors are busy people. They teach classes, attend meetings, manage the entire lab group, mentor others, write and review papers, all while trying to balance research projects of their own. Some professors are better than others at meeting with students and making sure they do not feel “lost” in the lab environment. Most, like mine, expect you to come to them if you encounter a problem or if you want to talk to them. They will not hold your hand. Many students are often intimidated by initiating the first approach. You need to be the one to knock on the door to show your professor you are interested in the research and are willing to work in a  lab. It begins by getting to know professors and their graduate students.

Here are a few takeaways from my personal experience:

1) When you are getting ready to apply for a research position, make sure you are genuinely interested in the lab and the research they are doing. Make sure you read about their goals, previous publications, and background. Most importantly, make sure you are interested in the research they are doing. For example, do not apply to a cell biology lab only because you know it will look good on your medical school application. This would waste the lab’s time and your time.

2) Once you’re in the lab, closely observe how your lab works. Who do you directly work with? Who do you go to when you have questions? What is the professor’s schedule? What is the atmosphere of the lab like? What happens during lab meetings?

3) Get to know your professor and make sure the professor knows you. Set up weekly or biweekly meetings. CC your professor on important emails or periodic updates on the project you are working on. Talk directly to your professor if you have any pressing concerns regarding your project.

My research experiences have been incredibly rewarding and helped me grow academically as a student and professionally has a future eye doctor. Doing research at the vision science lab has greatly complimented my own equally-rewarding journey as an MCB undergraduate here at UC Berkeley. I am happy to say I will be attending Berkeley School of Optometry this Fall 2018! If you have any questions, feel free to email me through the address at the top of the page!