Seeing the future of science and care at the Center for Visual Science
For nearly 60 years, the Center for Visual Science (CVS) at the University of Rochester has been a hub for vision science, where optics, ophthalmology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and other disciplines are transforming our understanding of vision and how we treat vision disorders. More than 40 labs make up CVS, which are comprised of faculty and trainees from Neuroscience, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the Flaum Eye Institute, Neurology, the Institute of Optics, Psychiatry, and Biomedical Engineering.
THE FOUNDATION OF EXCELLENCE
Renowned visual scientist Robert M. Boynton, Ph.D., had a goal— to create a center dedicated to excellence in vision research that would provide a space for investigators from any discipline to collaborate in the field of vision science. The location, the University of Rochester, an academic center two miles up the Genesee River from the heart of a city internationally recognized for its global role in optics innovation, due in great part to the technologies emerging from Kodak, Bausch + Lomb, and Xerox. In 1963, nearly a decade after coming to Rochester, Boynton realized this goal in founding CVS — he would be the Center director until 1971.
“His fundamental interest was visual perception and color vision in particular. But the idea that those sorts of interests could lead to this whole new field in which we’re able to measure aberrations more accurately would have just thrilled him,” said David Williams, Ph.D., William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics at the University. Williams was the sixth director of CVS, serving from 1992 until June 2021. It was a serendipitous role, as Williams first met Boynton on the other side of the country when he was a graduate student at the University of California San Diego. Boynton joined the faculty there in 1974. Williams spent many hours with Boynton, who volunteered as a subject in his Ph.D. thesis experiments. “I was doing psychophysical experiments on the short wavelength cones in the eye and Bob was very interested in that, so I spent many hours in a dark room testing his vision. But little did I know back then that I would be the director of the place that he founded.”
Boynton’s vision helped lay the foundation for the hub of basic vision science at the University. In the ensuing six decades, CVS continues to be dedicated to its core mission of advancing our understanding of the complex intersection of optics and neuroscience that comprises human vision. This commitment has allowed for substantial growth andexpansion, translating research into viable technologies used in the optics and vision industry. “In the last quarter-century CVS has made significant inroads into clinical applications of vision science,” said Williams.
This includes findings made in Williams’ lab that have successfully made the leap from bench to industry. His lab developed an automated method to accurately measure aberrations in the eye, allowing for the development of better corrective lenses — both in glasses and contacts. Williams’ research also helped develop laser refractive correction surgeries commonly known as LASIK.
His introduction of adaptive optics to the eye also opened a new window to study the retina in which researchers can look at single cells in a living eye and even observe the signals these nerve cells send to the brain.
CVS recently welcomed a new director and seventh leader. Susana Marcos, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert in the optics of the eye and the interactions of light with the retina, took the helm in July. She is the first woman to hold the position in the Center’s storied history. Originally from Spain, Marcos was well aware of the work happening in Rochester long before taking on this new role. “There is a lot of exciting technology going on at CVS, I think one of the flagships of CVS is the great interdisciplinary research,” said Marcos. “This combination of exciting research in an academic environment, the clinical side, and the opportunities for intern disciplinarily and a rich corporate environment are all the right ingredients for successes.”
Marcos’ strong interest in neuroscience and in driving vision research toward clinical applications will help mold the future of CVS. “I think that you're going to see a renaissance in CVS under Susana Marcos’ leadership,” said Williams. “She is perfectly positioned to carry on the effort to fast-track research to industry. She's very well trained in optics and optical engineering, especially in the context of the visual system. She has corporate partners and research contracts that allow her to translate the fundamental work that both corporations and clinicians care about.” Building on fostering multidisciplinary collaborations in vision science both internally at the University and internationally, Marcos is looking to bolster the Center’s global reputation. She will also pursue strengthening the alumni network, recruiting talented students, and sourcing seed funding to develop a pilot program that would foster cross-disciplinary research. She aims to also develop a model that accelerates CVS research to industry.
Marcos has spent much of her career developing optical technology with applications in the visual system of the eye. Before coming to Rochester, she was the director of the Visual Optics and Biophotonics Lab, and the director of the Institute of Optics at Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (IO-CSIC) in Madrid, Spain. She is a co-founder of 2EyesVision SL and a co-inventor of the SimVis technology that allows patients to ‘try on’ multifocal corrections before putting in contact lenses or having an intraocular lens implantation.
TRAINING FUTURE SCIENTISTS
Krystel Huxlin, Ph.D., associate director and co-director of training for CVS, and the James V. Aquavella professor and director of research in Ophthalmology, was first introduced to CVS as a trainee. As a postdoc, her interest lied heavily in neuroscience, but while working in the lab of William H. Merigan, Jr., Ph.D., she became immersed in CVS, which changed the trajectory of her research. “The real beauty of it was that it gave me access to a much wider set of approaches, expertise, and the opportunity to collaborate. I really started to branch out into asking questions that were more optical in nature,” said Huxlin. “It made all of the difference, and seeded much of the research I am pursuing today.”
Huxlin’s research encompasses visual recovery after stroke, and corneal wound healing — corneal damage and scarring is one of the major causes of blindness and there are currently no effective treatments. The latter propelled her work from the bench to industry. She and fellow vision scientist Wayne Knox, Ph.D., are developing a non-surgical alternative to laser refractive correction. The process known as LIRIC (Laser-Induced Refractive Index Change) changes the refractive index within the corneal matrix and it does so without a wound or surgical intervention. “It is so important to have good industry partners to take something from the bench to actual product. But it is key that the science does not get ignored during the years it can take to refine a product and get it to the point where it is commercially viable and clinically relevant.”