Why study that, Sabine Fuhrmann?

In science, we often think about the big picture questions: “How”, “Why”, “What”, etc. Many scientists love those questions, but are also fulfilled by the day-to-day doing of science. That is certainly the case for Dr. Sabine Fuhrmann, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences. Read about her excitement for both the big and small parts of her research!

-by Dr. Sabine Fuhrmann, Ph.D.

Why study the eye?

In my laboratory, we study development and regeneration of the mammalian eye. Eye development is a very dynamic process, and we are studying the underlying mechanisms for changes in shape during morphogenesis of the eye. We are also interested in development and regeneration of the retinal pigment epithelium, a tissue that is absolutely essential for vision. This is particularly important for diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of vision loss in the elderly population.

I am from Germany, and I grew up in a mid-sized town in the very north called Oldenburg. My fascination of the eye began in high school. In some respect my biology teacher Dr. Terwey was my first mentor; he definitively sparked my interest for science and the eye in particular. He never used a book and did an amazing job teaching us science facts using story telling. I remember that I was specifically fascinated by the anatomy and evolution of the eye; how complex it develops in vertebrates and in higher invertebrates such as cephalopods.

After finishing high school, I conducted my Master’s thesis in a Microbiology lab in my hometown. I studied the morphology and biochemistry of green sulfur bacteria that perform photosynthesis in extremely low oxygen and low light conditions, such as in the Black Sea in 100 m depth. I liked my project, and I learned a lot, however, I did not feel passionate enough about it, so I decided to change fields.

I moved all the way to the south of Germany and started my PhD at the University of Freiburg, in the lab of Hans-Dieter Hofmann in the Institute for Anatomy. My project was to study the role of the neurotrophic cytokine CNTF on differentiation of retinal cell types during eye development in chick embryos. I worked most of the time with cell cultures. Several aspects of my thesis were challenging, for example I had to do a lot of counting of cultured cells. What really hooked me continuously was looking at my cells in culture, using the microscope, either the electron, light and epifluorescence. I was fascinated how over days of cultures individual neuronal retinal progenitors change their shape, some grow very elaborate processes, and they start to express cell type-specific marker that highlight the beauty of these cells in a each possible way. Looking into the microscope fuels my passion for science every time until this day and I appreciate to be able to do research!

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Figure: During normal eye development, a transient gap, the optic fissure, has to close and fuse (arrows in left picture). If the fissure does not close, the eye stays open (arrows in right picture) resulting in coloboma, a relatively frequent birth defect in humans. The ocular tissues participating in this closure process are labeled in Red (neural retina) and Green (retinal pigment epithelium). (from Alldgredge and Fuhrmann, 2016)

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