My Sabbatical: Professor Mark Willcox

During my recent sabbatical (March-June 2016) I was fortunate to work with Dr Kathryn Richdale at the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Optometry  to develop new links with optometric and ophthalmic researchers based in New York and USA. During my sabbatical I also worked with Dr Cecilia Chao who is a past PhD student of SOVS (Prof Stapleton and Dr Golebiowski were her supervisors) who is doing a post-doc with Dr Richdale. Kathryn, Cecilia and I worked on several projects. We managed to submit the following publications and conference abstracts:

  • Richdale K, Chao C, Gokhale M, Duong K, Madigan M, Jalbert I, Golebiowski B, Willcox M. 2016. Sex, tears and contact lenses. Tear Film and Ocular Surface Society. Poster, Montpellier, France, Sept 2016
  • Duong K, Chao C, Willcox M, Richdale K. 2016. Changes in Tear Inflammatory Mediators Following a Short Period of Daily and Overnight Wear– A Pilot Study. Contact Lens Ant Eye – submitted July 2016

We also met and started collaborations with Professor Russ van Gelder from the University of Washington  and Dr Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello from New York University School of Medicine ). Prof van Gelder is very well known for his work on non-visual photoreception, but is also an expert on the ocular microbiome – in fact he presented a very interesting paper during ARVO this year that showed that much of the published ocular microbiome work using 16s RNA sequencing and showing the presence of many odd microbes in the eye is probably artifactual! Dr Dominguez-Bello lab focuses on the co-evolution of the microbiota and host – although not in the eye at the moment. She has been studying remote communities in Venezuela to examine what our gut microbiome might have been like before the development of high levels of farming and the “Western diet”.

Dr Dominguez-Bello was also part of a fascinating exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History that we took a “field trip” to see. I know, “little things please little minds” but these little things (our microbiota) seem to affect us in many ways. Did you know that research has shown that transferring gut microbes from a timid rat to a normal rat makes them timid also! Anyway, we donated our genes to the research for the good of science, as there was a set up to collect DNA from volunteers who attend the exhibition. I’m really looking forward to our research on the ocular microbiota with Kathryn Cecilia, Russ, Gloria, along with Dr Jerome Ozkan from SOVS, Professor Minas Coroneo from Prince of Wales Hospital/UNSW and Associate Professor Torsten Thomas from Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation UNSW.

Also during my sabbatical I met with Professor Matthew Libera, Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, USA  to initiate discussions on potential future collaborations on Antimicrobial Surfaces. I also presented a seminar to the Dept on our antimicrobial contact lens research. Along the antimicrobial lines, I caught with Dr Ren Chen, previous PhD student and Research Associate at UNSW (School of Chemistry and SOVS) to discuss his current research at Rutgers University on antimicrobial surfaces, and his plans for future research.

Last but by no means least, I presented a seminar at the University of Alabama College of Optometry entitled “Antimicrobial surfaces from laboratory to clinical analysis”, and discussed potential future collaborations with Professors Jason and Kelly Nichols. The Nichols are a formidable team, doing great research on dry-eye and contact lens discomfort. We have been working together on the TFOS Contact Lens Discomfort, and most recently Dry-Eye Workshop reports (due out in early 2017). I have the great pleasure to be on the PhD committee of two PhD candidates supervised by Kelly and Jason – namely Jillian Meadows (working on the involvement of complement in dry-eye disease) and Cameron Postnikoff (working on the role of white blood cell recruitment into the tears overnight in dry-eye disease). Keep an eye out for results from these students – very exciting stuff coming along!

Oh – and it wasn’t all work – as you can see from the photos! One is on the rooftop of an apartment of Dr Ben Backus from SUNY – who kindly invited us to a rooftop recital by eight cellists – only in NYC! Another of Manhattan Island from near the Statue of Liberty – on one of our many excursions around the island with visiting friends.

Mark Willcox is a Professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science and Director of Research.

My sabattical Mark Willcox