When it comes to vision, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye, whether it is the depth of functions of the human eye or its immense capacities as a super camera !

Lakshmi Rajagopalan (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Vision Research Scientist at Abbvie Inc, designs pre-clinical studies to test different therapeutics that will help in developing drugs and early interventions for treating ocular diseases.

Lakshmi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up research in vision science after realizing that there is a huge unmet need for therapeutic interventions for eye diseases.

For students, if you are interested in the medical field, aim to solve some of the most intriguing puzzles in vision science and contribute to restoring vision in patients.

Lakshmi, can you take us through your early years?

I grew up in Chennai in a middle-class family. My parents worked for the Indian railways. I have a younger brother who is also a postgraduate. Although my parents were not professionals, they made sure their kids pursue a bright career. Both my dad and mom had a strong inclination towards medicine and science and their interests greatly influenced me in choosing my career.

From the beginning, I was fascinated by science and always dreamt of being a scientist. My dad was also an amateur photographer and taught me the technical specifications of taking a good picture. As a science student, I was always amused by the depth of functions of the human eye and its immense capacities as a super camera. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

My mother found out about the Optometry program through her friend. Optometry or Vision Science was a lesser-known field during my school times, and only a few colleges offered a professional course.  I joined the B.S Optometry program at the Elite school of Optometry, Chennai.  The degree was issued by BITS Pilani and the college was managed by Sankara Nethralaya, which is a top eye hospital in India. 

My passion for becoming a vision scientist grew more during my final year of college. My college completely changed my perspective towards vision science and eye care. After graduation, I worked as an optometrist for a year, and was seeing patients of different ages with a broad spectrum of eye disorders. Prior to getting into optometry, I always thought that restoring vision was very easy, as shown in movies, but then learnt that only a small percentage of eye disorders could be treated and there is a huge unmet need for therapeutic interventions for ocular diseases. This triggered my interest to become a vision scientist, to understand the disease mechanisms and develop therapeutics for ocular diseases. With this directive, I joined the PhD program in Physiological Optics and Vision Science at University of Houston. During my graduation, I gained advanced knowledge about the working of the eye and disease mechanisms. The program gave me a holistic experience about research methods, experimental design and problem solving. These skills shaped my future career as a scientist. 

What prompted you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

There were many people who influenced me to choose this career. My mentor Dr Laura Frishman was not only a pioneer in Vision Science but also an extremely devoted teacher. Even before joining the program, I was deeply inspired by her research and wanted to work with her. Under her guidance, I advanced my knowledge in vision science through hands-on investigation of diseases in pre-clinical models.  She helped me in identifying my true potential as a vision scientist and fine-tuned my career path. 

While attending different meetings and conferences about Eye and Vision science, I was intrigued by the immense work done by the several biotech and pharmaceutical companies. From the beginning, the light that brought me to this career was my urge to bring innovations in therapeutic care and restore vision in patients. This would be difficult without the pharmaceutical companies. Hence, my goal was to pursue a career as a scientist in a pharmaceutical company, thereby developing therapeutics and delivering them to the clinic.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Since Optometry was not a popular course in India a decade back, there were less opportunities for higher studies in India. However, our alumni and professors were extremely helpful in guiding us. During my final year of internship, I did a pilot study on detecting early damage in the retina of diabetic patients using contrast sensitivity testing. This experience was the first step towards my career as a researcher. I learned the concepts of clinical study design including subject recruitment, inclusion criteria, subject consent, sample calculation, data analysis and statistics. I presented this work in our college research meeting where I also had the opportunity to interact with many ophthalmologists and scientists. Here, I was able to understand the scope and prospects of research in vision science in the United States. 

I worked as an Optometrist in Sankara Nethralaya, a top Eye Care Tertiary Hospital in Chennai, for a year after completing my undergraduate degree. In this role, I worked in different units of the eye such as retina, optical nerve, cornea, lens, uvea etc., This gave me an opportunity to understand different perspectives of eye care and choose my path of interest.

Having made the decision to pursue my career in the US, I wrote my GRE and TOEFL at the end of my final year of under graduation. I applied for 5 universities and got accepted in 3 universities. I chose the University of Houston for 4 reasons: 1. The PhD program in Vision Science and Physiological Optics at University of Houston, College of Optometry was very strongly built with a great potential for young researchers. 2. My main interest was in retinal and optic nerve diseases, and University of Houston had strong faculty and infrastructural support for this area. 3. I was awarded the Presidential fellowship for 2 years, with tuition fee waived and a stipend. 4. The cost of living in Texas was affordable to me.

My research was on studying the disease mechanism of glaucoma and early changes using electrophysiology in non-human primate models. Electroretinogram is a unique tool to detect the function of the retina in a living species non-invasively. Not many labs had expertise in using this tool. Another aspect of my research was on species selection. Non-human primate models are closely translatable models due to their similarities in anatomy and physiology with humans. Over the course of my PhD, I presented my research in many meetings and conferences where I had the opportunity to interact with experts of the field and network with them. I was also awarded fellowships such as the “William Ezell Fellowship”, “Fight for Sight Fellowship” and “Minnie Flaura Turner Grant” to support my research. I was also given the Young investigator award by the Optical society of America in 2013. 

In my PhD, I also worked as a Teaching assistant and a graduate research assistant. During my role as a graduate assistant, I had an opportunity to work with two different professors besides my mentor Laura Frishman. This opportunity expanded my scope to new and advanced technologies in ocular imaging such as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) and Adaptive Optics (AO).  As a teaching assistant, I was able to teach various skills in vision science to optometry students. This role also helped me to update myself with newer concepts of teaching in American schools. Overall, these various proficiencies shaped my career as a Vision scientist 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was my first job which fulfilled my dream of becoming a scientist. I got my first job as a Biological Research Scientist in Allergan.Inc, now AbbVie, Irvine, California.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Waiting for the right opportunity

I married after working for 1 year as an optometrist. We moved to South Carolina where my husband was working as an Associate Scientist in the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). MUSC did not have my preferred choice of PhD program. Additionally, due to VISA and govt regulations, I could not work as an optometrist in the USA with my Indian degree. And since my husband had recently switched his job, he couldn’t relocate. Therefore, I had to wait for the right opportunity. My husband was extremely supportive, and he found a volunteer position in the eye institute within MUSC. I joined as a research volunteer in Dr Barbel Rohrer’s lab and worked on rodent models of retinal degeneration. In no time, this challenge was turning to be my second step towards my career. 

Work life balance

As a woman in research, my biggest challenge was to balance family and career. I was married when I was about to start my PhD program and had my son after 5 years. That was the time I was busy submitting my dissertation proposal. It was extremely hard to focus on research and care for a newborn baby. However, I was very lucky to have a supportive husband and family. My husband and my family helped me in taking care of my son while I was focusing on my studies. This process was not easy, I had a short maternity leave and had to join my college soon. I could not enjoy some of the first-time mothers’ experiences. But like someone said, “No pain, no gain”, I had to sacrifice some of my happiness for a better future. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role as Research Scientist

Currently, I am working as a Senior Biological Research Scientist in Abbvie Inc, formerly Allergan Inc. I am leading projects for evaluating disease specific endpoints in pre- clinical models of ocular disease. I am also designing pre-clinical studies to test different therapeutics for ocular disease. These therapeutics, after successful results in preclinical animal models, would then be tested in humans as part of clinical trials. I acquired most of the technical skills needed for this role in my optometry school and PhD. Some of them include diagnostic skills such as refraction, slit lamp examination, electroretinography, visual fields testing, ocular imaging (OCT, fundus photography), direct and indirect ophthalmoscopy etc. Analytical skills include statistical and data analysis, image processing etc., I also learned programming in MATLAB, R, Mathematica, and image processing tools such as Image J, Adobe Photoshop. 

My day involves hands-on experiments as well as analysis, designing and troubleshooting. I also spend my time writing reports, research papers, abstracts and creating presentations. I also discuss our results and projects with my team and with our collaborators.

I love several aspects of my job. Each project comes with a challenge and a research idea. Every success is a step closer to helping patients with blindness. Even failures teach us a lesson to avoid a path and pursue a new research idea. Furthermore, my team and my manager Michael Engles are a big strength. We have healthy lively discussions within our team in study design, problem solving and troubleshooting. Their guidance and support have helped me achieve my goals and advance further in my career.

How does your work benefit society? 

As I mentioned above, many ocular diseases for e.g., retinitis pigmentosa, glaucoma have no cure. Most importantly, some of the retinal disorders affect children and youth. This is a huge burden. Currently, patients are managed in such a way so as to slow down the progression and symptoms. My research in vision science will help in developing drugs and early intervention therapeutics for treating these ocular diseases. Through my work, I aim to solve some of the puzzles in vision science and contribute to restoring vision in patients.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The most memorable work was my PhD research. The study I did during my PhD in evaluating early changes in glaucoma resulted in many awards including one of prestigious fellowships such as the “William Ezell Fellowship” awarded by the optometric glaucoma society (OGS). Moreover, this research work acted as a platform to highlight my skills and expertise in vision science and helped me to secure a job as a Vision scientist.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

For students who are interested in the medical profession but couldn’t get into medical colleges, optometry is an exciting profession. The field has changed a lot in a decade in India. There are many optometry colleges in India with an enormous scope. Additionally, colleges offering higher studies have also been recently established. Some of these colleges have collaboration with peers outside India. My advice to students is to follow their dream, take baby steps towards your goal and, wait for the right opportunity to make a big leap.

Future Plans?

I am pursuing a career that aligns with my interests. Each day, I learn new things to advance my knowledge in the field. I enjoy seeing a drug which I worked on, in the market helping to treat a patient. In future, I would like to see myself in a leadership role, managing expectations of patients and pioneering research. I also want to transfer my knowledge to the future generation and benefit society.