Imaging in the Big Apple

Optometry PhD student Wilson Pan received a fellowship to present his research at Stony Brook University, New York. He reflects on his experiences from his time abroad.

Wilson Pan (second from left) at Stony Brook University.

"Early this year, I was awarded a Claude McCarthy Fellowship to undertake original research abroad and attend an international conference. I was delighted to be granted this fellowship and to have the opportunity to travel to New York to spend time at Stony Brook University as a result.

"Being a physics graduate, my expertise is in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a very powerful and non-harmful imaging modality that’s widely used for clinical diagnosis and biomedical research. The application of MRI for the human eye is a relatively new area, but one in which there has been steady progress over the past few years.

Understanding presbyopia and cataract with MRI

"My PhD uses MRI to assess the physiological optics of the crystalline lens and to understand how lens ageing progresses into presbyopia and cataracts. These may sound like two entirely separate topics, but the link between MRI and the lens is hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the human body and MRI uses it to generate an image signal, and the eye’s crystalline lens is made up of water and protein, both containing tons of hydrogen. Thus, if we employ reverse engineering to look at the signal intensity in the MRI images, we can gauge the amount of water and protein content that exists in the lens.

"The Molecular Vision Lab at the University of Auckland, led by Professor Paul Donaldson, is an internationally renowned group that researches the lens, employing a number of talented biologists, physicists, biochemists and engineers. In 2016, our lab, together with the lab led by Professor Thomas White (who heads up Stony Brook’s department of physiology and biophysics), was awarded a US National Institute of Health grant to establish a collaborative research project to investigate age-related changes in the lens from a cellular level to tissue level.

"In Professor White’s own words, 'We developed MRI protocols to study lens water content and water/protein ratio non-invasively in human subjects. Our observations show that these parameters change in an age-dependent manner and can be used as physiological biomarkers to monitor the onset of age-related nuclear cataract.'

"Initial results look very interesting and exciting and I believe they will help us better understand the mechanism of cataract and provide new insights for cataract research.

My experience: Stony Brook University and New York

"At first, I was just like a fanboy when I saw the MRI machine here [at Stony Brook University]. I was given the opportunity to work with people whose names I’d only previously seen published!

"Stony Brook itself is a small town in Long Island, about one and half hours by train from New York City. Like the small towns near Auckland, life here is quiet and the people are very friendly.

"For a Kiwi researcher, this was not only a great opportunity to undertake advanced research, but to expand my horizons. I’m very grateful for this opportunity, and the ‘nightmare’ long distance flight is well worth it!"

Wilson Pan is a third-year PhD student at the School of Optometry and Vision Science. As well as continuing his work at Stony Brook University, the Claude McCarthy Fellowship allowed him to attend this year’s ARVO conference where he presented a poster on his and his colleagues’ work into measuring the fluid viscosity of vitreous body using MRI.

Republished with permission from NZ Optics, 'Imaging in The Big Apple', published 12 August 2019.