OUWB students present research this week at national ophthalmology conference
An image of OUWB students at ARVO
From left, Caroline Desler, M3, Josh Holbein, M.D., '21, OUWB, Conner Liddle, M3, Zara Saleem, M3, Rima Stepanian, M2, and Alice van den Broek, graduate student researcher at Schepens Eye Research Institute/Harvard Medical School Department of Ophthalmology.

At the 2023 Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology Annual Meeting this week, five Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine students presented their research in ophthalmology.

M3s Zara Saleem, Caroline Desler, and Conner Liddle, and M2s Rima Stepanian and Naomi Haque are in New Orleans for the big event.

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) describes its annual meeting as “the premiere gathering for eye and vision scientists at all career stages, students, and those in affiliated fields to share the latest research findings and collaborate on innovative solutions.”

“(ARVO) is such a big conference, and there’s so many leaders in the field that attend and bring their research to present, so to be able to have a little bit of a platform to share our own research is just kind of surreal and meaningful at the same time,” said Saleem.

'The reality of our patients'

Saleem will be presenting on two different topics at the conference.

The first, regarding Coat’s Disease, examines whether it truly appears more frequently in male patients as is commonly thought, or if female patients were only understudied.

Saleem also will present her research on the quality of medical information on TikTok, specifically information regarding retinal detachment warning signs, which was conducted and will be jointly presented as a poster with Desler.

Desler and Saleem’s research, utilizing a health information quality tool called DISCERN, found that patients discussing their experiences had far higher rates of engagement with their contents, even when medical content creators such as doctors and optometrists had higher quality scores.

Desler said that the research is significant, as it’s important to ensure medical content is high quality and accurate with the expansion of social media.

“Twenty, 40 years ago, we could have never conceived of social media the way that it is today, and it’s important as medical professionals for us to understand the reality of our patients and how they interact with the world,” she said.

“We need to get creative on how we reach newer generations and social media offers a great opportunity to do that,” added Desler. “The more that we can understand how they’re interacting with online content, the more we can make sure that they are still getting good health care.”

Saleem said that she was excited to not only present with Desler, but also to attend the conference with people she knew since she began medical school.

“I’ve known (Desler and Liddle) since my first year of medical school, and we’ve been friends since then,” she said. “Having each other to use as guidance for our projects and how to go about the research we’re doing…that’s been really helpful.”

Exchange of ideas

Liddle will be presenting his paper regarding the rates of endophthalmitis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caused by intravitreal injections into the eye, Liddle examined whether the usage of face masks lowered the rates this infection occurred, as it would prevent bacteria from the patient or doctor’s breath from getting onto the needle prior to injection.

The chance to get involved with a field he is interested in and speak with like-minded individuals through this conference, Liddle said, is appreciated.

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“Considering my first two years at OUWB were heavily impacted by COVID, I didn’t have as much face-to-face interaction with researchers, mentors, and people in other institutions,” he said. “It’s a little bit isolating at times to be doing this type of work, and it is very nice to be able to have something to show for it.”

“The conference is going to be a really nice way to justify the work that went into this being displayed, and hopefully (I’ll be) able to help other scientists figure out their own questions,” Liddle added. “Selfishly, for myself, I’m just very happy to be able to meet with people that are from all over the country who want to share their own ideas on ophthalmology.”

“It feels very much like getting to be involved with the community that I haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to in my first two years of medical school.”

The lab work side of medical research will also be well-represented by OUWB students at the conference.

Stepanian will present the research she conducted in Kenneth Mitton’s, Ph.D., associate professor, Oakland University, lab on a project with ARC.

In this lab, a gene panel was created to test for rare ophthalmologic conditions in patients and their family members. This research is ongoing, but Stepanian will be presenting the findings they have so far through a poster presentation.

This is the first time that Stepanian will be attending a large conference in-person outside of Oakland University.

“One thing that I’m looking forward to but a little bit nervous about is sharing my research with people that are much more senior in the field that have probably been to 10, 20 ARVOs,” she said. “But I’m very excited for the challenge of being there and presenting and getting feedback from people.”

“A lot of the stuff that you do in the science realm is very teamwork-based. You need a lot of people at different steps,” she added. “Presenting to a different set of eyes is sometimes (helpful). People will suggest something new to try that might be really helpful. And just getting the chance to meet people from different places will be really exciting too.”

The future in research

For Saleem, this isn’t the first time she’s had the opportunity to present at a conference — in 2019, she presented at the American Diabetes Association in San Francisco, and she’s been conducting research since undergrad.

She hopes it won’t be her last opportunity, either.

“I would love to possibly get my Ph.D. in addition to my M.D. and hopefully have a lab of my own one day,” Saleem said. “That’s something in recent years I’ve become very interested in, and the more research I do, the more my commitment to staying in academic medicine has solidified.”

Though she focuses on the patient-facing side of clinical medicine, Desler said she hopes to participate in research in some capacity in the future, specifically research outside of the lab.

“I tend to be more interested in public health, community medicine research,” she said. “I’ve liked that our project looked at social media — it isn’t typical bench work where you’re in a wet lab, and you’re working with cell lines or isolating DNA or doing more of the nitty gritty stuff.

“I like big picture research, and in that sense, I definitely hope to continue my research in residency and beyond.”

Liddle said that having an end goal for research, whether it is being published, presenting at a conference, or something else, can be helpful for the scientific community overall.

“It is nice to have that little extra bit of motivation when you are approaching a new research idea that will, in the long run, both help individual careers academically but also help science in general, getting more people involved, and pushing out new avenues of thinking that otherwise haven’t been thought of,” he said.

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