On April 13th, 7th grade students from Claire Lilienthal Alternative School visited the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute (SKERI) in San Francisco. Audrey Wong-Kee-You, Research Coordinator at SKERI, welcomed the students and teachers and introduced them to the institute’s mission of creating a unique environment for the study of vision science and the development of assistive technology to support people who are blind and visually impaired.
After the introduction, Sony Devis, SKERI’s COO, along with other members of the research administration team: Beatriz St. John (Senior Research Administrator), Francisco Molieri (Accountant) and Margaret McGovern (IRB Coordinator), lead groups of students for a tour of select laboratories.
In the Coughlan lab, students explored technology applications that support independent navigation for people with visual impairments.
In the Verghese lab, students learned about the importance of binocular vision for the development of good depth perception and observed their retina in scanning laser ophthalmoscope.
In the Shanidze lab, students learned about how the brain combines information from different senses to control a person's walking and balance. Student also got to explore simulations of how diseases that affect vision can also impact walking, and learned about how researchers in the lab are using Kinect sensors to study how people with and without visual impairment walk.
Finally, in the Teng lab, students learned about how echolocation can be used by people who are blind to navigate. Students participated in an interactive activity to demonstrate how people can use sound to detect features in their environment and also learned about how electroencephalography (EEG) is used in the lab’s echolocation research to measure electrical signals in the brain.
Following the lab tours, students got a chance to hear from a panel of four women at SKERI.
Preeti Verghese is a Senior Scientist at SKERI where she leads her own team of researchers to study neural processes, strategies and adaptations that humans use to interact with objects in the real world. Being 1 of only 4 women in a 200+ student engineering program, she learned the importance of standing up for yourself and supporting fellow women when working towards your goal. She shared that sometimes a career path you may initially think is not for you can be combined with your other interests to create a perfect job for you.
Catherine Agathos, is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Shanidze lab. She shared her experience navigating next steps as she was completing her engineering degree and discussed how pursuing a PhD has allowed her to study a topic she is fascinated about: how humans move and interact with their environment. Her curiosity and determination has allowed her to reach her goal of being a Movement Scientist where she now studies how vision and posture are linked.
Haydée García-Lázaro is a Postdoctoral Researcher Teng lab. From a young age she was fascinated by the brain and how it controls our thoughts, feelings and behavior. She recounted her experiences as she trained to be a brain scientist and wanted the students to know that a career in science allows you to explore not just in the laboratory but also the world; scientists often have the opportunity to travel around the world to share their research findings at conferences, to foster scientific collaborations and to learn from other scientists. Haydée urged the students to remember that everyone is capable, no matter their background and gender.
Jillian Cellucci is a Research Associate in the Good lab and IRB Coordinator at SKERI. In the Good lab she runs vision tests on babies using visual evoked potentials, and as the IRB coordinator, she helps review the scientific procedures of research at SKERI. Jillian shared her experience with a mental health condition and discussed how her experience ultimately sparked her curiosity and passion in understanding how our brains work. She shared how completing her studies was challenging but that by persevering she reached her goals of getting a job she loves.
After getting to know the panelists, students asked excellent questions, including:
- How did you decide what to study?
- What do you do in your role day to day?
- Do you have any advice on how to prepare for a job interview?
Panelists’ response and advice included:
- Think about topics that really excite you and consider your values and life goals. You may not always realize it, but there is often a career path that can allow you to pursue your passion and that is in-demand.
- Scientists wear different hats. A normal day includes planning and executing experiments, analyzing data, writing reports, attending meetings, mentoring students/trainees and of course, lots of coffee!
- It’s important to be confident in your skills and honest about where you could still improve.
A huge thank you to Drs. James Coughlan, Preeti Verghese, Natela Shanize and Santani Teng for opening the doors to their laboratories. The lab tours were made possible by the help of Postdoc researchers Haydée García-Lázaro and Catherine Agathos, along with research interns, assistants and associates Hirva Patel, Naomi Heinen, Aidan Gauper, Yash Kshirsagar and Ryan Crabb. We thank our wonderful panelists, Preeti, Haydee, Catherine and Jillian for sharing their stories and facilitator Naomi for moderating. Finally, we thank all the volunteers at SKERI who help put the event together and helped during the day, including Audrey Wong-Kee-You, Sony Devis, Bebe St. John, Linda Washington, Francisco Molieri and Margaret McGovern.