There was a time - not so long ago - that the eye was still a mysterious organ for Morgan Heisler. “I could have told you what a pupil was, but that’s about it,” says the biomedical engineering student with a laugh.
This changed when she embarked on an VPR USRA-funded co-op placement working with diagnostic technology for glaucoma patients at Vancouver General Hospital’s eye care centre.
This clinical placement experience became the subject of her honours thesis: analyzing the repeatability of a system that detects early-stage glaucomatous damage – the leading cause of irreversible blindness. After completing the VPUSRA placement, Morgan continued working at the clinic part-time and now has more than a years’ clinical experience under her belt.
“At first, when I knew I was going to be working in an eye clinic, I was thinking more about the hardware and the imaging equipment,” she says. “But when I got there, I also started working with patients. It’s really interesting to see so many different pathologies of the eye.”
Under the supervision of SFU professors Marinko Sarunic and Mirza Faisal Beg, as well Vancouver General Hospital's Dr. Paul Mackenzie, Heisler worked in the clinic three days a week,imaging patients with glaucoma and other eye conditions.
At first, she created an infrastructure to help researchers and clinicians access data collected from patients during a number of years. Then, she learned how to image patients using various systems to create 3D images of the eye: one for the organ’s posterior segment (the macula and the optic nerve head), and one for its anterior segment (the iris and the cornea).
Once collected, the raw data is processed with software for motion correction, smoothing and segmentation to analyze various layers and landmarks in the eye. Although Heisler mostly worked with glaucoma patients, she also imaged diabetic patients and patients before and after cataract surgery.
For her honours thesis, Heisler reviewed the ability of the eye care center’s system to analyze actual changes in the eye over time. “Before we didn’t know if changes were due to system error, or if we were detecting real morphological change,” she says.
“Now we can do longitudinal studies, working with patients, imaging them and then comparing the initial image to one taken a year or two later. If we see a change above the expected error, we know it is most likely an actual change.”
Heisler’s advice to students considering applying for the NSERC VPUSRA? Go for it. “The professors are really great to work with, and because it’s just four months it’s a great way to find out if you enjoy research work,” she says.
Before receiving the NSERC VPUSRA, Heisler, who was also awarded the Engineering Undergraduate Student Society Award for exceptional service to the student society, expected to find work in industry. Now, she hopes to continue her research on medical imaging technology for ophthalmology as a master’s student at SFU.
“I think the VPUSRA will really help me with the transition to my master’s, where I’m hoping to create an imaging system of my own,” she says. “It’s rewarding to work directly with patients who have a clinical problem and think that one day, this system could help them.”