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Retinal researcher has her eye on the prize

Dr Carla Abbott stands in a park smiling

Emerging leader: Dr Carla Abbott is part of veski’s STEM side by side program.

Growing up in Shepparton, Dr Carla Abbott required regular trips to the optometrist that left her fascinated by all things optical.

“During high school I developed an interest in how eyes worked and wanted to learn more,” she says. “I was keen to do something health related and … I found the eye quite fascinating.”

Dr Abbott also swam competitively for 10 years, reaching state championships in breaststroke, and played for the local hockey team. “I have always enjoyed keeping active,” she says.

Now investigating treatments for retinal disease, Dr Abbott trained as an optometrist at the University of Melbourne. Wanting to discover more about eye disease and therapies, she undertook a PhD using novel imaging methods to investigate retinal structure in disease.

Since joining CERA in 2013, among other things Dr Abbott has helped develop a bionic eye for those with advanced retinitis pigmentosa.

Her hard work within a ground-breaking team has seen her named a veski inspiring women in STEM side by side participant. The program supports mid-career emerging leaders to progress in a STEM industry.

A new image for eye research

Dr Abbott’s career journey is already impressive. She completed post-doctoral studies at the National Vision Research Institute in 2009, studying retinal circuitry, before moving to the Save Sight Institute at the University of Sydney.

Whilst obtaining a Post-Graduate Certificate in Ocular Therapeutics at the University of Melbourne, she gained clinical optometry experience in public and private clinics.

She was Director on the Council (Board) of the Australian College of Optometry in 2010-11, and spent two years at Devers Eye Institute, in Oregon, USA (2011-13), where she developed novel ways to study optic nerve disease.

In 2013 Dr Abbott joined CERA as part of the Bionic Vision Australia multidisciplinary team that was developing an Australian ‘bionic eye’ for people with late stage inherited retinal disease.

She is now a Research Fellow at CERA and the University of Melbourne Department of Surgery (Ophthalmology).

Dr Abbott, who enjoys clinical work when she can, is also a clinical instructor for optometry students at the Australian College of Optometry and was appointed to the Optometry Board of Australia in 2018.

Bionic eye

The bionic eye project is trialling its second-generation model in human patients and working on a third that will refine the technology for commercialisation.

In 2020, Dr Abbott became Research Project Manager on a new collaboration between CERA, the University of Melbourne, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and international partners, to learn more about a sub-group of people with age-related macular degeneration who are at high-risk of central vision loss.

“When I started my PhD there were new retinal and optic nerve imaging modalities becoming available and researchers and clinicians were able to start solving problems using these non-invasive technologies,” she says.

“The application of the new imaging techniques to understanding more about retinal and optic nerve disease and assessing potential therapies is still a very exciting and dynamic field of research.”

Hard work rewarded

The veski nomination sees Dr Abbott enter a professional development program of career workshops, industry networking, leadership skills, and developing impact frameworks.

“I feel very privileged to be given this opportunity to further develop my leadership skills and to network with other female emerging leaders across the STEM field,” she says.

“I think one of the great opportunities will be the chance to develop a supportive and positive network with others in different STEM fields and to be able to apply learnings from other sectors to our own.

“I am passionate about the eye health sector, the importance of research and evidence-based practice and wish to contribute in a meaningful way to the growth and development of the sector into the future.”

Dr Abbott was also awarded a prestigious University of Melbourne Ernst & Grace Matthaei PhD scholarship (2004) and a John and Allan Gilmour Research Award (2006). She received an Australian College of Optometry Fellowship in 2014 for significant contribution to the profession of optometry and the wider community.

While she is now officially inspirational, Dr Abbott still admires her female mentors Associate Professor Penelope Allen and Professor Robyn Guymer AM.

“They demonstrate a leadership approach that is collaborative, compassionate and encourages high level input from those at earlier stages of careers,” she says.

“Their ability to pivot as circumstances change and to motivate their team through both challenging and successful times is very inspiring.”

Where to from here?

Before COVID-19, Dr Abbott was working on the bionic eye clinical trial, age-related macular degeneration studies, and preclinical research on gene and cell treatments for retinal disease.

Coronavirus had a huge impact, including disrupted routines and working from home. But Dr Abbott’s main projects were well advanced, so the impact was manageable.

“The bionic eye trial is still on track to be completed late 2020 or early 2021.” Dr Abbott says. “The new work on the high-risk subgroup of age-related macular degeneration is beginning, as we already have some retrospective data available for analysis. However, collection of new data has been delayed.”

Personally, Dr Abbott kept active during multiple lockdowns by cycling and jogging while raising two pre-schoolers with her husband.

“They take up most of my time outside work,” she says. “We both work but I have been part-time … since the birth of the kids to allow some flexibility. I have been lucky to be able to spend some extra time with the kids while they are little.”

 Read the full article

Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology abstracts showing that the bionic eye can be safely implanted and is stable over time, and that the artificial vision produced is helping with navigation and object detection, can be read here.

https://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2767406&resultClick=1

https://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2767405&resultClick=1


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