Explore UAB

by Satina Richardson

Vision Science Graduate Program students, each of whom has prior academic and/or professional success, are driven by the desire to make discoveries that could impact humanity. During the 2022-2023 academic year, several students made significant steps towards achieving this worthy goal.

Notably, three students received $85,000 total in research foundation awards for their individual efforts. Plus, three students were awarded prestigious Ezell Fellowships—the largest number of student winners at UAB in a single year.

“The Vision Science program had a banner year thanks to our students, who continue to pursue excellence,” said Lawrence Sincich, PhD, VSGP director. “They have parlayed their personal and professional experiences into efforts to change the landscape of eye and vision care, potentially across continents.”

Some of the students have substantial clinical experience and now conduct research focusing on glaucoma, myopia, diabetic retinopathy and Alzheimer’s disease from a vision science perspective, to name a few disorders. For instance, Mahmoud KhalafAllah, MD, MSc, received the Rod Tahran/ Essilor Ezell Fellowship. Prior to joining the Vision Science Graduate Program, he completed an ophthalmology residency and gained a year of valuable work experience in Egypt, where he received his medical degree. His clinical training involved diagnosing and treating various eye conditions, including performing surgical procedures such as cataracts and refractive surgeries.

KhalafAllah’s career goal is to become a physician-scientist specializing in glaucoma. His doctoral research studies the impact of early-onset myopia on the optic nerve head and the increased risk for glaucoma development later in life. His research findings could contribute to innovative diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for both diseases.

“I am driven to make significant contributions by unraveling the intricate interplay between myopia and glaucoma,” he said. Ultimately, my goal is to bridge the gap between research and clinical practice, positively influencing the lives of patients worldwide affected by these conditions.”

Ellen Antwi-Adjei, MPH, OD, earned several honors in 2023, including being named a Michael G. Harris Ezell Fellow and was awarded a fellowship from the American Association of University Women. Her PhD research assesses the efficacy and practicality of portable perimeters for glaucoma in underserved areas. The study uses ophthalmic telemedicine to bridge the gap between urban and rural eye health care.

She is inspired by the rise in ocular disease globally as well as her decades of experience in her home country, Ghana, working as an optometrist, public health advocate, and educator. In Ghana’s rural and urban areas, many of the patients she saw had advanced cases of eye conditions. Antwi-Adjei is involved with an ongoing clinical trial (AL-SIGHT) funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This rural Alabama study aims to develop a model eye health system using telemedicine to prevent vision loss and address eye health among underserved and at-risk populations.

Swetha Ravichandran, M. Optom, chose to research Alzheimer’s disease after watching her grandfather battle the disease. She believes that more can be done to help neurodegeneration since society is heading towards increased life expectancy.

“Having watched my grandfather battle Alzheimer’s disease further stirred my longing to tread towards this journey,” she said. “As a doctoral student, I am now focused on exploring novel ocular biomarkers that could help in the diagnosis of preclinical neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Further, I wish to address major gaps in the field of ocular diagnostics and biomarkers.”

Prior to being accepted into the VSGP, Ravichandran completed a bachelor’s degree in optometry from the Elite School of Optometry and a master’s in optometry from the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India. Her goal is to work in academia conducting research and teaching didactic courses.

“Awards like those received by the students really reveal the quality of the program as well as elevate our visibility,” Sincich said. “There was a 29% increase in applicants in 2023 and the success of our students is undoubtedly contributing to this uptick in interest.”

Four students were accepted in 2023, with most receiving Blazer Graduate Research Fellowships to support their goals financially. The VSGP is collaborative and multidisciplinary, with students being mentored by faculty from several academic disciplines across multiple schools and departments. Nine countries are represented among the 20 doctoral students in the program.

“Each student has a faculty team supporting them every step of the way,” Sincich said. “As research educators, we want nothing more than to see each student reach their full potential.”

Antwi-Adjei is grateful for the support she receives.

“Their support, feedback and encouragement keep playing an integral role in shaping my research ideas and pushing me to aspire for newer and higher pinnacles,” she said. “The journey is very challenging, but when the shoulders of such giants are available to stand on, you see a brighter tomorrow."