ARVO 2017 Final Thoughts: Intersections

May 15, 2017

by Jennifer Phillips, Ph.D.

Another ARVO is in the books. This year’s program had the excellence and variety I’ve come to expect from this meeting, in addition to the opportunities to make contact with current collaborators and lay groundwork for future cooperative efforts. Throughout the meeting I was learning things that triggered new thoughts on various ongoing projects, and I spent the week firing off missives to my research group back home “Can you check on X?” “Let’s get set up to try Y” “Hey guys, new direction on Z” and so forth. This is how the wheels of scientific discovery turn, and it’s what keeps me in the game, because quite honestly, it’s SO MUCH FUN.

That said, the fact that I enjoy my work so much should not lead you to think for one minute that I don’t take it seriously. I’m employed by a public University. I’m paid by federal grant money, but I work for you—the Usher community. More specifically, my work has a greater purpose because you exist, because you are watching, hoping, and holding me accountable.

There’s a trend in science right now that I think began in the business community some years ago, to refer to isolated research endeavors as ‘silos’. To some extent, taking a deep dive into an intense and specific research question is inevitably isolating. Truthfully, there are not many people in the world with whom I could have a nitty gritty conversation about my work without having to back up and explain at least one element. I hasten to clarify that this is not because I’m especially accomplished or clever, it’s just the nature of research at this level. Yet most of us recognize that, while ‘siloing’ is unavoidable in many cases, it presents significant limitations as well. I can’t move my discoveries about Usher syndrome out of the silo unless I can forge connections with people who have expertise in different areas. I need my work to intersect with people who know Usher syndrome in different ways than I do—clinicians, patients, and parents. I need to intersect with people or entities who have the structural support to transport this work out of my silo—people who make tools that we can use in the lab to take the next research step forward, people who finance tractable or promising therapies, and people who know the ins and outs of how to get from the bench to the bedside. And that’s true of every Usher researcher out there.

For all that we know what we need to do, making it happen can be challenging. Conferences like ARVO present great opportunities to find those intersections by chance, but meetings specifically designed to bring together experts from different disciplines and set them the task of finding intersections to a specific end are even better. I was lucky enough to attend such a meeting hosted by the Usher 1F Collaborative the day after ARVO concluded. It was masterfully programmed to bring researchers with USH-specific projects together with researchers developing new therapeutic tools along with experts in getting treatments cued up for clinical trials and FDA approval.

While no single meeting is going to resolve the complex and multi-layered challenges of curing Usher syndrome, meetings like this are essential. My call to fellow researchers is to look for ways to engage with other fields as much as possible. Tools are rolling out faster than ever before, and scientists in non-applied fields are literally begging for people just like us to use their new inventions on our projects. Find them and do it!

My call to the USH community at large is to do what you can to bring these opportunities together. Organize. Be the bridge. You are the crucible in which complementary ideas can blend and become something stronger and more promising than ever. Everyone’s got a stake in this, so let’s knock down the silos and get going.

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