By Gabrielle E. Montanez
Ronald Miller was only a freshman, but his search for a summer research project paid off in spades when Associate Professor of Bioengineering Jacques Beaumont connected him with Dr. Daniel Tso, director of research at SUNY Upstate Medical University’s neurosurgical laboratories. During summer 2011, Miller joined Tso’s team of NIH-funded researchers working to develop an early-detection protocol for debilitating retinal diseases that affect the sensitive tissue inside the eye.
“Right now, the only way to identify macular degeneration — or many other retinal diseases — is to already have it,” Miller explains. “By then it’s past certain points in treatment. This could be a way to detect it before the onset of the disease.”
To develop a new method for assessing the health and function of the retina, Miller helped other lab staff present visual stimuli to normal mice and mice with specific genetic mutations. Miller collected retinal images from the stimulated mice with sensitive digital cameras. The images captured expected retinal activity in the normal mice, and showed expected deficits in retinal function in mice with the mutations. These mice, as Miller learned, are called “knockout mice” because certain genes are selectively removed prior to research — in this case, photoreceptor genes that affect retinal function.
Miller’s interest in biomedical engineering grew during his first year in the Watson School. The research experience was a way to go beyond the classroom, forcing him to apply theory, find information and solve problems on his own. And he was able to experience the fast pace and steep learning curve of biomedical research early on in his college career. “You have to be more like an autodidact,” he says. “Independent learning was a big part of successful research.”
Miller rejoined Tso’s team this summer to process the results in the mouse retinal research, readying the study for publication. He will also participate in the adaptation of the method for use in humans