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Beginning in January 2019, three students—one postdoctoral and two pre-doctoral—engaged in the first integrated training program of Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences (DOVS) that is dedicated to the visual sciences.

The University of Wisconsin Vision Research Training Curriculum (VRTC), where Ryan J. Donahue, PhD Candidate; Sarah K. Rempel, PhD Candidate; and Kara Vogel, PhD, are trainees, was established last year to implement the DOVS’ first T32 grant from the National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health (NEI/NIH).

VRTC selects its trainees through a competitive process that focuses on new technologies and discovery. The Vision Research Training Curriculum focuses on development and diseases of the anterior segment, developmental diseases of the posterior segment, ocular epidemiology and genetics and higher order visual processing. Faculty include researchers not only from the DOVS but from across campus, including Engineering, Computer Science, Neuroscience, Psychology, Pathology, Population Health and Veterinary Medicine.

Most are connected through membership in the McPherson Eye Research Institute. These faculty will support the training of two graduate students and one postdoctoral student every one to two years, over the next five years.

This program offers outstanding students an opportunity to learn from faculty who are working at the cutting edge of vision science. We are able to immerse our students completely in their chosen field and also help them develop the skills they will need to have productive vision research careers.


Students are now engaged in a robust program focused on the understanding and exploration of the visual system and its diseases. They will participate in discussions and lectures ranging from the molecular and cell biology of the photo transduction pathway (the process that converts light into a neurological signal), to the networks of neuronal connections in the retina and the brain, to the clinical management of major ophthalmic diseases.

As part of this curriculum, students will complete a comprehensive course titled, “Ocular Diseases of the Mammalian Visual System,” expected to be approved for January 2020.

Ryan J. Donahue, PhD Candidate

T32 Vision Research Trainee, Research Assistant, Nickells Lab
Trainer: Robert Nickells, PhD, Professor, DOVS

Research Focus: Development and Diseases of the Anterior Segment
Looking at the molecular pathology of neurodegenerative disease, Ryan’s project focuses on understanding temporal dynamics of retinal ganglion cell commitment to apoptosis in the optic nerve crush model.

Sarah K. Rempel, Research Assistant, PhD Candidate

T32 Vision Research Trainee, Gomez Lab
Trainer: Timothy Gomez, PhD, Department of Neuroscience

Research Focus: Development and Diseases of the Posterior Segment
Sarah is interested in understanding how human stem cell-derived photoreceptors extend axons in vitro and in situ in 3D retinal organoids. These cells are promising candidates for cell transplant therapies to cure blindness caused by diseases such as cone/rod dystrophies and age-related macular degeneration. By understanding how human photoreceptors develop in vitro and in organoids, she hopes to better understand aspects of normal human retinal development and to better inform transplant therapies.

Kara Vogel, PhD

T32 Vision Research Trainee, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Department of Neuroscience, McLellan Lab
Trainer: Gillian McLellan, PhD, BVMS, Associate Professor, School of Veterinary Medicine

Research Focus: Development and Diseases of the Posterior Segment
Kara is investigating the role of cytoskeletal dynamics in the process of synaptic plasticity. For example, how does the architecture along the neuron’s dendritic length and spiny protrusions develop and change dynamically after neurotransmitter stimulation? Furthermore, how does this correlate to dynamic aspects of cytoskeletal function? Synaptic plasticity is fundamental to higher cognitive processes such as learning and memory, and loss of integrity of this system correlates to neurodegeneration and disease. She studies the dynamic interaction of microtubules, actin, associated proteins and cargos with high-resolution microscopic techniques, such as the laser scanning confocal microscope.

Director, Robert Nickells, PhD

co-director, David Gamm, MD, PhD.