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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Science is serendipitous

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is

success.” – Henry Ford

This may sound weird, but you know when you’re lying in bed too excited or too stressed

to sleep, and you just stare at the ceiling and think? I do that almost every night, except I’m not

thinking about a project, test or even that pizza I’m going to get tomorrow — I’ve got science

on my mind. I get excited thinking about projects that aim to cure diseases or help a poor

community gain access to clean water. I once spent an entire night thinking about a research

paper that addressed researchers’ hopes to grow back limbs we have lost (search HOX genes

and regenerative medicine).

During one of these late night sessions, I wondered what kinds of methods were being

used to help people who have lost their sight. One scenario that came to mind was the X-
Men character Cyclops and the pair of shades he wears on his head to see and shoot lasers.

I wondered, can there be a device like his shades that allows blind people to see? It turns

out there already is. The U.S. Department of Energy started working on the Artificial Retina

Project in 2002 to help restore sight to those with debilitating eye diseases. The concept they

used resembles what powers Cyclops’ glasses, and they created a device that allows users to

effectively “see.”

The Department of Energy reported that federal funding for this project ended in 2011.

In the nine years the project was funded, the Department produced three iterations of the

device which was life-altering to those who received them. The device, a pair of sunglasses,

has cameras that captures what’s in front of the user and sends that information wirelessly to

a processor. The processor then sends electric signals to a small thin pad on the retina of the

user’s eye and allows the user to see what the glasses are seeing.

Perhaps most importantly, the project required the interest and teamwork of many

different disciplines. The department had labs, universities, individuals, private industries and

more working on it. Scientists from a wide breadth of fields, including engineering, chemistry,

szphysics, biology (bio and physics together?!), and psychology, combined their expertise and

created this revolutionary device.

Because funding ended in 2011, the future of expanding the artificial retina project is

with my generation — us students. As we pursue our education, we must be reminded of the

many reasons we are here. We have a chance to enact real change for millions of lives, and this

retina project is one of the many examples we can leap into. Who better to enhance this than

students like ourselves?

I applaud our university and the many achievements it has made in the areas of science,

technology and health. I believe we can do better. One thing that has always driven me up

the wall about large universities is the disconnect people might feel from areas outside of their

discipline. Since research universities like UC Davis are so large, many undergraduates tend to

stick to their own area of study. The retina project brought scientists from many fields together

— working under one “roof” so to speak, and sharing ideas as well as teaching others. As the

task of expanding on the retina project and spearheading like-minded ideas has been given to

our generation, why don’t we create a unified effort within our university to make these projects

Cue the “One World, One UC Davis” mantra.

I’m talking about an ongoing research opportunity — run by our university students

— that brings folks from different disciplines together to contribute to solving problems. By

combining the power of our faculty with the unique and inquisitive minds of our students, we can

approach a problem and work as one family. I don’t mind if we don’t solve it — just creating a

hands-on, team approach would tell our student body that great ideas can be collaborative and

use each others’ skills to solve problems.

The artificial retina project brought a team from different backgrounds to produce a life-
changing result. While the product is amazing and its benefits are important to learn about, the

collaborative effort in which this project was conducted had me thinking,

One World, One UC Davis — let’s work on making that a reality.

Want to discuss what projects you think about in bed (I swear I’m not creepy)? Shoot

UMAYR SUFI an email at uwsufi@ucdavis.edu or tweet him @umsufi.

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