Director: Steven J. Pittler, PhD
The Vision Science Research Center (VSRC) was established in 1979 to draw together vision scientists from the entire university campus. To be designated a University-wide Interdisciplinary Research Center (UWIRC), the VSRC has demonstrated sponsorship from more than two UAB schools, and has been evaluated by the University's Research Advisory Group on substantive interdisciplinary faculty involvement; provision of research infrastructure; contribution to the intellectual environment so as to enhance faculty and student recruitment, development and retention; a financial base to support center and core activities; internal and external review processes to assure high quality and productivity; and leadership in the integration of research and service including community outreach or partnerships. The VSRC currently is one of 20 UAB University-wide Interdisciplinary Research Centers. The Center currently has more than 75 appointed faculty members representing 19 departments and 6 schools at UAB and the Birmingham VA Medical Center
The participating faculty’s research focus includes scientific topics such as molecular biology of the visual system; retinal anatomy, physiology and molecular genetics; central visual system physiology; oculomotor physiology studies of the lacrimal gland, cornea, and tear film; and visual psychophysics as related to diseases such as dry eye, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, and age-related macular degeneration. To facilitate research in these areas, the National Eye Institute/National Institutes of Health provides funding for shared facilities that support the individual members’ research activities. This in turn permits participating faculty to have more cost-effective use of personnel, better space, utilization and increased productivity and funding. These shared facilities are extensively equipped and are managed by experienced and highly trained faculty and staff. For example, the Instrument Core consisting of Electronics and Machine Shop facilities provides the services of a full-time electronics and tool and die engineer offering design and fabrication of electronic and mechanical devices and the repair, maintenance and calibration of electronic equipment. A programmer/systems analyst writes/modifies existing software as needed for the Advanced Image Analysis Core. This core also provides access to equipment such as high-end computers, scanners, and slide makers.
The VSRC has also initiated programs that integrate basic discoveries with clinical application (translational research). Because the UAB VSRC includes the largest concentration of basic and clinical vision scientists in the state, the Center serves as a major state and regional resource. Regionally, the VSRC provided partial support of the Shared Ocular Tissue facility which works closely with the statewide Alabama Eye Bank to supply ocular tissues to UAB investigators and investigators at other institutions. Significant education and outreach is supported by the center and the School of Optometry and the Department of Ophthalmology and all are very active in community outreach, information, referrals, and vision screening programs to extend vision care to all Alabamians. Clinical research efforts in the center include the “Correction of Myopia Evaluation Trial” (COMET) initiated by Dr. Marsh-Tootle in collaboration with scientists at UAB and other institutions, is a multi-center, multi-year clinical trial evaluating the effects of two optical interventions on myopia progression in children. New treatments for myopia may result from these studies. In addition, the Center supports various university-wide research programs. Its Pilot Grant Program will provide 2-3 pilot grants of up to $15,000 every year to encourage investigators in other disciplines to begin vision research and to encourage vision researchers to branch out into new research areas. Another VSRC activity that serves to invigorate the intellectual environment for both faculty and students within the vision community is the VSRC Visiting Scholars Program. This program brings between twelve and fourteen internationally recognized vision scientists to UAB every year. The High Resolution Imaging Facility (HRIF), partially supported by the VSRC, in conjunction with the Comprehensive Cancer Center and Arthritis Center, provides investigators with the most advanced Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy, Multiphoton Laser Scanning Microscopy, Transmission and Scanning Electron Microscopy, and digital imaging equipment and access to highly skilled technical expertise to use the equipment effectively.
Graduate training is coordinated by the Center through its support of the Vision Science Graduate Program, which prepares students for careers in basic and clinical research. In addition, the Center houses a T32 training program that provides pre and postdoctoral trainee support for the interdisciplinary research training program in vision science developed at UAB over the past 23 years. The Center also houses a T35 training grant designed to encourage and support involvement in vision research for students in health care professional programs such as Optometry and Medicine.
A new effort initiated by the Center is the Rural Alabama Diabetes and Glaucoma Initiative. The program will provide screening, education, and treatment of glaucoma and diabetes for some of Alabama’s most at-risk citizens in the “Black Belt” counties of the state. Among the goals of the project are the development of strategies for educating affected individuals in areas with high poverty and illiteracy rates about their disease and its treatment. Future studies will assess such issues as response to conventional therapies and will be used to help formulate alternative protocols for individuals from similar communities throughout the state and region.
The VSRC Education and Outreach Module serves to provide community outreach and education for all aspects of vision including public awareness seminars, vision clinics in the Alabama Black Belt Region, research and professional training in sensory impairments, and information and referral to research, treatment, public schools and rehabilitation facilities.