A Bold Vision

Partnership allows UAB to bring top ophthalmology researchers to Birmingham to improve vision care for the entire world.
PresidentWatts-TorreyDeKeyser-DrHofland-DrGirkinA unique and dynamic philanthropic collaboration has resulted in a gift commitment to establish the Research to Prevent Blindness/Susan and Dowd Ritter Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology Research in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology. The $3.75-million endowment, one of the largest in UAB history, will enable the department to recruit a world-class scientist to join its existing roster of international experts in the study of blinding diseases like macular degeneration and glaucoma.

The concept for a multimillion-dollar endowment to advance the department’s vision research programs evolved out of discussions between two of UAB’s staunchest supporters: Research to Prevent Blindness (RPB), the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to funding eye research in the world, which has a long history of supporting the UAB Department of Ophthalmology; and the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama (ESFA), the department’s and university’s largest donor. In 2013, the two organizations recognized that they could leverage their individual philanthropic impact with equal matching support from an additional private philanthropic partner. They approached the Department of Ophthalmology with this proposal, and the final piece of the puzzle fell into place when lifelong Birmingham residents Susan and Dowd Ritter pledged to provide the crucial third matching gift. Mr. Ritter is the former CEO of Regions Bank, which, under his leadership, became one of the largest banks in the United States. He is also the former chairman of the Birmingham Business Alliance, where he still serves on the executive committee and board of directors.

The Ritters were inspired to make the gift because of the unique opportunity it offered to help elevate the UAB Department of Ophthalmology to the top tier of vision research institutions. “We’ve gone to the Department of Ophthalmology for family eye care for years, and all the doctors we’ve encountered have been fabulous—it’s a stellar part of UAB and as it grows is going to be a real jewel for the city,” Mrs. Ritter says. “We’re also impressed by Dr. Girkin and think he will be a great steward of the gift. And we liked the fact that this is a public and private partnership that’s going to allow UAB to bring top ophthalmology researchers to Birmingham to improve vision care for the entire world.”

Christopher A. Girkin, M.D., chair of the UAB Department of Ophthalmology and holder of the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama Endowed Chair of Ophthalmology, which was established in 1999 by a generous contribution from ESFA, says he is grateful for the support of all three parties. “As a result of RPB’s strategic philanthropic investments, researchers funded by the organization have been associated with nearly every major breakthrough in the understanding and treatment of vision loss over the past 50 years,” Girkin says. “RPB’s partnership with the Ritters and the EyeSight Foundation provides an opportunity at a critical juncture for expansion of the department’s research program. Having a $3.75-million endowed chair will enable us to recruit another stellar individual who will add even more depth and breadth to our already outstanding research faculty.”
Susan Dowd Ritter-
According to RPB President Brian F. Hofland, Ph.D., a number of factors influenced their selection of UAB as the pilot site for an endowed research chair. “RPB is interested in supporting upward trajectory in vision science, so this concept of a highly leveraged endowed research chair with potential to attract a truly excellent national vision researcher to UAB was appealing to us,” Hofland says. “Plus, the UAB Department of Ophthalmology was already a respected recipient of one of RPB’s unrestricted grants supporting the top departments of ophthalmology in the country. And, at the time, the department had a relatively new chair in Dr. Girkin, who had developed a dynamic strategic plan for the department with ambitions to aggressively raise its national ranking. At RPB, we see this project at UAB as an effort that may well prove to be a model for other such partnerships in other parts of the country.”

Today, RPB provides major research funding to more than 50 leading scientific institutions in the United States and supports the work of hundreds of top vision scientists, including those at UAB. Since 2008, the organization has awarded grants and pledges totaling $2,180,000 to the School of Medicine at UAB.

The EyeSight Foundation of Alabama likewise is enthusiastically supportive of Girkin’s vision for the department’s research goals, according to Torrey DeKeyser, executive director of the organization. “Under his leadership, there is an emphasis on research that is generating excitement among the scientists, and this collaborative endowed chair will help boost and continue this momentum,” she says. “The EyeSight Foundation board and staff could not be more pleased to be part of this strategic funding collaboration with the Ritters and Research to Prevent Blindness.”

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