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The Quest for Exceptional Talent

Dr. Keirnan Willett, CDA recipient

Keirnan Willett

The Foundation Fighting Blindness isn’t exactly like American Idol, but we are always in search of good research talent. That’s because we need to attract young physicians to retinal research to conduct the growing number of clinical trials for promising treatments and cures.

For up-and-coming eye doctors, there are a number of career options available, with private practice being the most popular choice, namely because academic research is challenging and painstaking work. It is not the easiest career path.

So inspiring young, talented doctors to move into retinal degenerative disease research is a critical part of our mission. We do it through career development awards (CDAs), which provide funding to doctors to participate in retinal research projects and expose them to our important work.

I am pleased to report that our CDA program is thriving; we currently have 18 outstanding awards including those for physicians who are developing gene therapies and vision-preserving drugs, and learning how to evaluate patients for future clinical trials.

Our partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Medical Fellows Program has been very successful in attracting top candidates to our CDA program, and we just announced two new HHMI awardees. One is Dr. Haben Kefella, who will evaluate therapeutic agents for age-related macular degeneration at Yale University School of Medicine under the mentorship of Dr. Ron Adelman, an accomplished surgeon and professor. The other is Keirnan Willett, who will help develop optogenetic therapies for ultimately restoring vision in people with advanced retinal degenerations. Mr. Willett’s mentor is world-renowned gene therapy developer Dr. Jean Bennett at the University of Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, Dr. Bennett was a CDA recipient herself, which really speaks volumes for the value and impact of our career development program. Believe it or not, veteran clinician-researchers such as Dr. Gerald Fishman of the Chicago Lighthouse, Dr. Samuel Jacobson of the University of Pennsylvania, and National Eye Institute Director Dr. Paul Sieving received CDAs from the Foundation. Our alumni are the best in the world.

But if your talent happens to be more appropriate for the dance floor, come to our VISIONS Conference in Minneapolis (June 28-July 1, 2012), and you’ll have the opportunity to show off your stuff during the Saturday night dinner and dance party. They’ll be no judging — everyone is a 10 in our book.

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