Just as Dan Stamer, PhD, was putting the finishing touch on his year as president of ARVO, COVID-19 happened. “ARVO” isthe Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the world’s largest and most respected assembly of vision scientists. Its annual meeting, which would have taken place in Baltimore this week, is a tour de force of new vision research, with at least half the attendees traveling to it from outside the United States. This year’s meeting was canceled due to the pandemic,although parts of it will be presented online.
Dr. Stamer is the Joseph A.C. Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University. Since the start of his career, he has been a great friend to BrightFocus, serving at different times as grantee and/or mentor to grantees, reviewer, Glaucoma Fast Track speaker, co-chair of ISER/BrightFocus Glaucoma Symposia in 2017 and 2019 and the future 2021 conference, and collaborator on numerous BrightFocus-funded projects worldwide. His research expertise lies in the biology and biomechanics of glaucoma, and he is world famous for innovative approaches to understanding how intraocular pressure is regulated in health and dysregulated in disease.
Recently we caught up with Dr. Stamer to talk about the unexpected turn of events at the conclusion of his term as ARVO president, his contributions to BrightFocus over the years, and what it has meant to be a leader among vision scientists.
BrightFocus: What were some of the best moments of your past year as ARVO president, before COVID-19 happened?
Stamer: For 2020, ARVO was launching several new initiatives, including its inaugural Bench-to-Bedside (B2B) meeting. Our hard work in planning the B2B meeting paid off, as we were about to launch our first full-day meeting designed to educate vision scientists about how to advance translational ideas to clinically applied products. As well, we were planning our first ARVO International (Pacific Rim) meeting in Hawaii. Like ARVO 2020 and its B2B pre-meeting, we unfortunately had to cancel ARVO International due to COVID-19. Despite these disappointments, I was very proud of how professionally and thoughtfully ARVO handled these difficult decisions. B2B will now launch at ARVO 2021 in San Francisco and the next ARVO International will focus on the European region in early 2022. We will benefit from all of the hard work that went into planning these programs as we launch them in the near future.
BrightFocus: Did you take office with goals in mind, and what are your biggest accomplishments?
Stamer: ARVO is a very large and complex organization filled with many activities aimed to benefit members. For 2020, one that was unique to me, and that I am most proud of, is the successful launch of EyeFind. I consider this a big accomplishment for me and for ARVO. EyeFind is a convenient web-based system that connects vision scientists who use human donor eye tissues in their research with eye banks that can meet their specific needs. In conjunction, the ARVO Foundation collaborated with the Brightfocus Foundation, Research to Prevent Blindness Foundation and the Eye Bank Association of America to fund a grant program dedicated to providing human donor eye tissues for researchers needing preliminary data for grant submissions. We are accepting applications for this program currently. We aren’t stopping here. Moving forward, ARVO is working on establishing a set of best practices for researchers in obtaining, managing and publishing data using human eye tissue in research.
Dr. Stamer, right, is joined by Kevin Corcoran, president and CEO of the Eye Bank Association of America, to demo the web-based EyeFind network that connects vision scientists with human donor eye tissues for research. EyeFind, “best practice” guidelines, and a grant program to help early researchers obtain human donor eye tissues (funded in part by BrightFocus), were key accomplishments during his ARVO presidency.
Plans to Hold Parts of This Year’s ARVO Online
BrightFocus: It’s hugely disappointing that ARVO 2020 had to be canceled, especially for researchers who were planning to give posters and talks. What workarounds are planned for their presentations?
Stamer: Upon canceling the Annual Meeting, we quickly began working on ways to provide a forum for researchers to share their vital science. Authors with an abstract accepted for the ARVO 2020 Meeting can submit up to a 10-minute video recording of their research. These presentations will be hosted in ARVOLearn, ARVO's online learning platform, and be available to all members, as well as nonmembers with a subscription option. The first group of presentations submitted will be available by May 16 and the second group by June 15. In addition to the online presentations, anyone with an accepted abstract can choose to publish their abstract in the Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science Annual Meeting Special Issue that will be available in July.
BrightFocus: We’ll miss being there, and are sad we can’t hold our annual BrightFocus Breakfast! Would you agree that some elements just can’t be captured in a “virtual” meeting?
Stamer: Yes, while scientific progress can occur in a virtual format, lost is the spontaneity and synergy that occurs at many of the informal gatherings and meals at ARVO, like the BrightFocus Breakfast. Many of my best ideas have occurred during these informal exchanges with colleagues or students. Most importantly, it is critical to stand in front of your work (paper or poster) and defend it, which is difficult to replicate virtually. However, we are hoping that with the chat features available to presenters virtually on ARVOLearn, this level of interaction will help our members continue to move forward and get valuable feedback.
Staying Focused and Working as a Team
BrightFocus: This pandemic is difficult and scary, and yet can also be a time of exploration. For example, BrightFocus has talked to eye doctors who treat macular degeneration and glaucoma, and while they worry about their patients constantly, and are taking extra precautions, they’re also trying new things, like telemedicine.
Is the same thing happening in vision research? Even though labs are closed, is important work going on, and progress being made towards cures?
Stamer: Yes, we have used this time to catch up on data analyses, reading the literature, designing experiments, and writing of both papers and grants. Having this time to take a step back and think deeply about results obtained, or new, creative research strategies, has been tremendously beneficial. While it is good to plan/hypothesize, ideas ultimately need to be tested in the laboratory with controlled experiments--and thus we need to get back there sometime in the near future. In the meantime, I hold weekly lab meetings on Zoom, have one-on-one phone calls, and exchange many emails to keep in touch with everyone.
BrightFocus: You, personally, are known for being a good mentor and a generous collaborator. In fact, much of the work you’ve done with BrightFocus has focused on helping others, including early investigators who want to get projects off the ground. Have you found it satisfying to “pay forward” throughout your career?
Stamer: I was lucky, and had amazing mentors during my training and early career. Amongst many others, Bob Snyder, John Regan and David Epstein were key role models for me. In science, we are all on the same team, where collaboration and mentoring are key elements to progress. For me, both of these aspects make tackling complex problems in innovative ways fun and rewarding.
BrightFocus: ARVO seems like a great organization, one that’s been member-led and science-driven since its earliest days, when a couple hundred researchers met yearly in Sarasota, FL, to now, with 12,000 vision scientists worldwide. How does it feel to lead this exceptional group?
Stamer: My first ARVO was in Sarasota in 1991, and ARVO 2020 would have been my 29th conference in a row. This past year, it has been an honor to serve in a prominent leadership role for ARVO, an organization that has consistently nurtured my career over these 29 years.
BrightFocus: Do you have any words of encouragement for your fellow vision researchers and students at this difficult time?
Stamer: While social distancing has clearly helped reduce the spread of COVID-19, it will be science that will allow us to return to normal, providing viable treatments for infected patients and a vaccine for immunity. I am confident that progress with both of these will come fast because we are all focused, and working together towards the same goal.
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