As we head into our 2020-2021 academic year, it is hard to believe that I have served as Vanderbilt’s chair for over 17 years. Our growth during that time period has been exponential by any metric, including our faculty size increasing from 14 to over 60! At the same time, our clinical activity has increased more than four-fold. We now see patients at 14 locations and have considerable depth in every subspecialty.
More notably, 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the department of ophthalmology at Vanderbilt. Founded by Dr. James Elliott in 1970, the department has expanded exponentially over a half century. My two predecessors as chair, Dr. Elliott and Dr. Denis O’Day would be flushed with pride to see the progress we have made since Dr. Elliott was recruited in the 1960s as Vanderbilt’s first full-time ophthalmologist.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the challenges we faced last year. Immediately on the heels of a severe tornado, the COVID-19 pandemic struck middle Tennessee. Like the rest of the nation, we stopped all routine and elective care, reducing our clinic volumes to 25% of normal and our surgical volumes even more. A large percentage of the VEI staff relocated off campus to work from home and our educational programs shifted from face-to-face to virtual. Fortunately, our region did not face the dramatic impact of COVID like some other parts of the country. While our hospital certainly has had a large number of admissions and an unfortunate number of patients that died, we never were overwhelmed. By May, we started a gradual reopening of our clinical operations, with serious attention to patient and staff safety. And by the end of June, we back seeing pre-COVID patient volumes.
Along the way, the Vanderbilt Eye Institute demonstrated its extraordinary culture of collegiality and collaboration. Staff and faculty quickly adapted to the changes imposed upon them, whether it meant having your job responsibilities amended or using the time away from your research lab as an opportunity to finish manuscripts and write grants. Our educators showed their grit and creativity, developing a serious of spectacular virtual conferences, spanning the spectrum of subspecialties and engaging colleagues from institutions across the nation. I hosted VEI Town Halls on a regular basis, keeping everyone up to speed on what was happening locally and regionally and fielding numerous questions. While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly was a crisis, it also was an opportunity to test our mettle, and we passed with flying colors!
As I can now reflect on our educational programs, they clearly are thriving. Our combined internship program is now hard-wired, where all five of our new residents completed a year as a surgery intern at Vanderbilt during which they spent 3 months in ophthalmology at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute. As our “interns” start their formal residency in July, they have considerable experience and skills in our field. Following on the inauguration of a fellowship program in oculoplastics, we will be launching our glaucoma fellowship in July, adding to our long-standing superb training in pediatric ophthalmology and retina. In addition, we will be welcoming our first trainee in our new pediatric optometry program. Finally, we will launch a program to train ophthalmic technicians in September, and two additional students will join our marvelous orthoptics training program.
Our research program continues to thrive. In 2003, we had two grants from the National Eye Institute and ranked below #50 in ophthalmology department NIH funding; in 2017, the Vanderbilt Eye Institute ascended to the top ten, and we have maintained that top ten ranking every year since, rising as high as #3 in 2018. As at every institution with a robust research enterprise, success in grant funding is the result of outstanding efforts by superb scientists: and we are privileged to have an extraordinary team of vision researchers. However, there are superb investigators across the country. At the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, our vision research initiative has been driven by three additional critical ingredients: a well -defined strategic plan, outstanding mentorship, and remarkable collaboration. As well, we have been privileged to receive extraordinary philanthropic support, highlighted by our recent $10 million gift from an anonymous donor to support regenerative visual neuroscience.
VEI has a clear vision of our research priorities. From the outset, we determined that we could not study all parts of the eye and all diseases. Rather, we felt that our ability to maximize impact would result from narrowing our focus to the key blinding diseases: age-related macular degeneration, retinal vascular diseases (diabetic retinopathy and ROP), and glaucoma. We selected 4 research initiatives defined by approach and discipline: interventional medicine, vascular biology and nanotechnology, pharmacogenomics and human genetics, and aging and regenerative medicine. We promoted cross-fertilization and linked these initiatives to the blinding diseases: Preserving Vision Through Discovery.
Mentorship is another key ingredient to out “secret sauce”. Our research enterprise consists of a senior scientist directing an initiative with a team of more junior investigators. Each faculty member has a mentor or a committee or mentors to oversee their career development. Scientists are encouraged to take care of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s robust trove of resources to assist in idea development, grant writing, and access to core resources.
Finally, Vanderbilt boast a unique culture of collegiality and collaboration that enhances every discovery program. At VEI, we are home to the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center, a collaboration of over 50 vision scientists across campus, from bioengineering to psychology. We have developed impressive core resources, co-host research seminars, and share talented trainees and technical support. In addition, our investigators have as many as 150 collaborations within and outside Vanderbilt, strengthening our efforts to fuel discovery, share ideas, and bring others into our exciting.
As inspired as I am by the impact we are having on patient care, training, and discovery, the future is even brighter. I invite you to explore our website to learn more about VEI and our quest to transform vision care in the 21st century.