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Christine F. Wildsoet, OD, PhD, FAAO, FARVO
Member, Berkeley Optometry Hall of Fame

Christine F. Wildsoet

Dr. Christine F. Wildsoet was born in Tully, a small country town in the tropical north of Queensland, Australia, where she completed most of her schooling, with the exception of approximately 12 months, in a one-teacher school in an even smaller, nearby town. After graduating from high school in December 1971, one of a class of 12 students, she initially enrolled in a pharmacy program at James Cook University, Townsville, before reconsidering her career choice, and ultimately redirecting her energies to optometry. She graduated in 1975 from the Queensland Institute of Technology (QIT), now Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, where she was also offered a faculty position on graduation, and was also awarded the Chas Sankey Fraser Memorial Prize.

She revisited her interest in pharmacology, to complete in 1983, a second Bachelor of Science, with first class honors in pharmacology and a university medal from the University of Queensland (UQ), to help facilitate an expansion of the scope of Optometric practice in Australian into therapeutics. Her involvement in pharmacology research, as a requirement for graduating with honors, while involving asthma-related research, ignited the spark for basic biological research, and led her to enroll in a doctor of philosophy (neurobiology) program, also at UQ, under the guidance of world-renowned visual neuroscientist, Professor Jack Pettigrew, who led the Vision Touch Hearing Research Center (VTHRC) within the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.

Over this period and beyond, she continued to teach full-time at QUT, and held an honorary research position at the VTHRC, providing the best of both worlds in the context of research, with one foot in the clinical world and the other in the basic science world of research. The focus of her PhD research was myopia, making use of the chick as an animal model to study early eye growth regulation, emmetropization and myopia development. She was the first to demonstrate that eyes largely regulate their own growth, without need for input from the brain – a concept that was viewed with some skepticism at the time but is now universally accepted, being fundamental to the success of the MiSight contact lenses and other multifocal optics either approved or under clinical trial for controlling myopia.

A collaboration with Professor Josh Wallman, a well-known myopia researcher and close friend of her PhD mentor, based at City College in New York, led to the first demonstration that the choroids of young eyes (using the chick model), could rapidly thicken and thin, thereby altering the plane of focus of the eye – a process for which they coined the term, choroidal accommodation, which has also since been demonstrated to be a feature of most, if not all young eyes. Despite early skepticism, the choroid became one of the hottest topics in the field of myopia research.

Dr. Wildsoet moved to the U.S. in the middle of 1996, initially taking up a faculty position at the New England College of Optometry in Boston, before moving again at the beginning of 2000 to the University of California, Berkeley, where she has continued her myopia research, which now encompasses two animal models for myopia (chick and guinea pigs), which are used to study underlying molecular mechanisms and explore potential therapies (optical, pharmaceutical, stem cell & tissue engineering), for preventing myopia, slowing its progression and rehabilitating the scleras of highly myopic eyes.

Among other, more recent firsts, is the observation in work led by clinician scientist Dr. Yan Zhang that the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), through gene expression changes (involving the TGF-beta super-family), is able to encode the optical defocus experience of the retina, including its sign. The finding by then graduate student, Dr Nevin El Nimri, that experimental myopia progression can be slowed by topical Latanoprost, otherwise used clinically to lower IOP, was identified as one of the top 10 hot topics at the 2017 ARVO meeting. Complementary studies in human subjects are looking for parallels with findings with animal models, with particular interest in the visual factors driving myopia in children and young adults. A variety of techniques are applied in this research, including but not limited to modern cell and molecular biology, cell and tissue culture, microsurgery, and advanced in vivo imaging, including high resolution ultrasonography, OCT and MRI techniques, optical measurements including aberrometry and corneal topography, and functional testing, including OKN and mf-erg recording.

Modern technology is also being deployed in studies aimed at improved characterization of the visual behavior and environment of myopes, to better understand their roles in progression. Past involvement in clinical research includes both myopia and non-myopia topics, the first clinical trial of multifocal contact lenses for myopia control (undertaken in collaboration with one of UC Berkeley’s Alumni, Dr Thomas Aller), IOP rhythms and the factors that influence them, including changes in glaucoma and ocular health service delivery for Australia’s indigenous population are just three examples. Dr. Wildsoet has an on-going collaboration with faculty at QUT, to re-configure, in the interest of portability, a culturally appropriate visual acuity chart produced during her time as a faculty member there.

The research accomplishments summarized above could never have been done by one person. Dr. Wildsoet has benefited from the efforts of a rich array of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows and clinician scientists, along with faculty collaborators, based both at UC Berkeley, elsewhere in the U.S., and overseas.

As a faculty member, teacher, and scientist, Dr. Wildsoet has also been committed to the education and training of students, at both post-graduate, graduate and undergraduate levels, with particular interest in the welfare of under-represented minorities and women. She has also had extensive involvement in mentoring undergraduate students at UC Berkeley through the Regents and Chancellor’s Scholarship program, Fiat Lux Scholarship program, and the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program.

Her long-standing interests and mentoring track record (she was the recipient of a UC Berkeley student mentoring award), is reflected in an invitation to speak at a workshop on mentoring and diversity at ARVO 2014, and in related service, both to ARVO (on its Diversity committee) and within UC Berkeley. This includes many years of service on the Diversity, Equity and Climate Senate Committee for both optometry and vision science graduate programs, as equity advisor and chair of the mentoring subcommittee of the DEI&B Council, PI on an NEI-funded research training grant (T35 program) for optometry graduate students, and co-PI on a related 2-year pilot Norway-UC Berkeley summer research training exchange program (2017-2018). She also served as faculty sponsor for a Women in Vision Research group at UC Berkeley, and has served as primary mentor to six K grant awardees, two who now have faculty positions, and three who have independent K grants. She also has extensive on-going involvement as a research mentor for international graduate student researchers, clinician scientists/ophthalmologists, including visiting clinician scientists from China, as well as researchers based in Europe and Australia.