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 quality and productivity; and leadership in the integration of research and service including community outreach or partnerships. The VSRC currently is one of the 23 UAB University-wide Interdisciplinary Research Centers. The VSRC’s mission is to promote vision science research, facilitate collaborative investigations and add to the scientific knowledge of the eye and central visual and oculomotor pathways leading to improved diagnosis, treatment and prevention of blindness and visual impairment. The Center currently has more than 70 appointed faculty members representing 19 departments and 6 schools at UAB and the Birmingham VA Medical Center
The participating faculty’s research focus includes topics such as molecular biology of the visual system; retinal anatomy, physiology and molecular genetics; mechanisms of myopia; mechanisms of cataract formation; central visual system physiology; oculomotor physiology; studies of the lacrimal gland, cornea, and tear film; and visual psychophysics. To facilitate research in these areas, the Nation Eye Institute/National Institutes of Health provides funding for shared facilities that support the individual members’ research activities. This in turn permits participating faculty with cost-effective use of personnel, space, and funds. These shared facilities are extensively equipped and are managed by experienced and highly trained personnel. For example, the Electronics facility provides a full-time electronics engineer who offers design and fabrication of electronic devices and the repair, maintenance and calibration of electronic equipment. The Histology lab employs an extensively trained histologist and is well equipped for tissue processing so that users need not duplicate such “big ticket” items as cryostats and specialized microscopes in their own laboratories. A systems analyst and two computer specialists write or modify existing software as needed for the Computer shared facility. This facility also provides access to equipment such as high-end computers, scanners, a full color poster printer, and slide makers. A machinist who designs, builds, repairs, and modifies equipment staffs the Machine Shop facility.
The VSRC has also initiated programs that integrate research and service (translational research). Because the UAB VSRC includes the largest concentration of basic and clinical vision scientist in the state, the Center serves as a major state and regional resource. Regionally, the VSRC provides 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. The Education-Outreach module is active in community outreach, information, referrals, and vision screening programs to enhance the lives of persons with low vision. Clinical research efforts in the center include the “Collaborative Longitudinal Evaluation of Keratoconus (CLEK)” Study, and the “Collaborative Longitudinal Evaluation of Ethnicity and Refractive Error (CLEERE). The “Correction of Myopia Evaluation Trial” (COMET) initiated by Dr. Marsh-Tootle in collaboration with scientists at other institutions, is a multi-center, multi-year clinical trial evaluating the effects of two optical interventions on myopia progression in children. Treatment for myopia is expected to result from these studies. In addition, the Center supports various university-wide research programs. Its Pilot Grant Program provides two pilot grants of up to $15,000 every other 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 Cancer and Arthritis Centers, provides investigators with access to state of the art Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy, Multiphoton Laser Scanning Microscopy, and digital imaging equipment and the technical expertise to use it 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.