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The Young Visionaries

Image of child wearing cataract goggles

Truen Ibbotson experiences what it’s like to have restricted vision using special goggles designed by the Young Visionaries. Photo: Sharyn Wragg

By Mandy Thoo

Early-career scientists are using goggles that mimic common eye diseases to teach primary school children about their vision research and the importance of eye care.

In a school classroom in Canberra, a group of keen young scientists is giving primary school children a unique chance to literally see the world through the eyes of their grandparents and experience firsthand what it feels like to be going blind.

Vision Day at Kaleen Primary School in Canberra is just one of a series of public outreach events run by a group of scientists who call themselves the Young Visionaries – all early-career doctoral and post-doc researchers in The ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science (The Vision Centre).

Formed in 2007, these young researchers all have a passion for sharing science and its benefits with ordinary Australians. Their daily investigations of the miracle of sight and how it works may range from lizards to robotics and eye diseases to the very secrets of sight itself. Although they differ in their location and research interests, the Young Visionaries are inspired by a common goal – to produce and communicate good science that helps people.

One reason for their enthusiasm in sharing their science is to give back to the community that pays for it. “We’re grateful for the various opportunities given to us to perform our research, and I believe in giving back to society. This is one way we have chosen to do it,” says Faran Sabeti, one of the Young Visionaries. When he’s not enthralling primary schoolers, Faran, based at the Australian National University, works at the cutting edge of a new technology that uses eye pupil responses to diagnose common causes of blindness.

Since their formation, the Young Visionaries have held “Vision Days” at local schools in the ACT and, increasingly, across Australia. The researchers pick their own topics to talk to school classes about – eye anatomy, colour vision, optics and optical illusions and diseases of the visual system are among the most popular. The program is designed to be fun and interactive for scientist and student alike.

“We’re learning that science communication isn’t just a one-way street. You have to keep the students interested, encourage their curiosity,” says Shaun New, a driving force behind the Vision Days.

Outreach programs such as Vision Days provide the scientists with a break from their research routines and help provide young Australians with sound knowledge about how to look after their eyesight. These outreach programs are entirely driven by early-career researchers, fuelled by their enthusiasm to share the fruits of their research with the community. Apart from running programs at local schools, they also contribute to National Science Week and Questacon (The National Science and Technology Centre), encouraging better eye care through activities and devices.

One device being promoted by the Young Visionaries is a set of goggles that mimic the restricted vision experienced by people suffering from common eye diseases. These goggles are proving to be one of the most popular activities in Vision Day as they enable students to experience what it feels like to live with vision impairments.

“We set out to help the kids experience what it feels like to have a certain eye disease so they can empathise with people who have vision loss,” Faran explains. “We’ve had children putting on the cataract goggles and go: ‘Wow! My Nana has this. It’s so blurry.’”

An important aspect of the lesson involves helping youngsters to understand why they need to protect their vision early in life if they expect to maintain good eyesight as they age.

The Young Visionaries also explain to kids about how the eye works, and how our eyes can play tricks on us. “One of the teachers who suffered from a certain eye disease told us that she would have been able to avoid the damage if someone told her about eye care,” says another driving force of Vision Day, Rizsa Albarracin.

Although they differ widely in their research interests, the Young Visionaries take full advantage of this variety through their research network. Each year they come together for a retreat to design and discuss vision-based projects that are relevant to society. Focusing on the practicalities of research, the discussions range from contributing to the local community to forming international collaborative projects like a joint Australia–

Singapore myopia prevention program. They also discuss better ways to communicate, like setting up a MediaWiki to exchange research ideas and developing virtual laboratory visits for the public.

The get-togethers provide a space and time for these early-career researchers to gain skills that are outside the focus of their research. Senior researchers take part as mentors, sharing their knowledge and experiences of being a fully fledged researcher, such as how to write grant proposals and understanding how funding works. The young scientists also have a chance to voice their opinions and list areas where they need guidance.

“One of the best things about being in Young Visionaries is having a voice within The Vision Centre. Having our concerns or needs addressed by the Centre is something that I wouldn’t be able to gain without being in the Young Visionaries,” says Richard Moore, a Queensland-based Young Visionary whose research lies in the fascinating world of robotics.

“The gap between being a young researcher and a self-sufficient one can be quite daunting,” he explains. “We are developing a program that enables our students to gain skills that they need as research scientists. Having talks from industrial and senior researchers is a big help.”

The Young Visionaries’ enthusiasm for outreach programs like Vision Day is infectious. Encouraged by a positive response from school teachers and students in the ACT, young vision scientists around Australia are now planning to set up similar activities in their states. The Young Visionaries will cover more schools in the ACT and NSW in 2010, and plan to run similar programs in Queensland.

Shaun New

On any given day you’ll probably find Shaun New gazing into the eyes of a lizard. In the second year of his PhD with the The Vision Centre at the Australian National University, Shaun is interested in how eye design evolves to meet the visual demands of the user’s environment and behaviour.

Outside his research, Shaun is the main organiser of the Vision Day program and works at the CSIRO Discovery Centre in Canberra, where he is employed as an education officer. Motivated by teachers who fuelled his own passion for science, Shaun says he hopes to inspire the next generation of budding scientists.

Richard Moore
Richard is impressed with the sophistication of the visual systems of insects, despite their small size. His research involves investigating the flight patterns of bees and applying them to robotics. By studying how bees detect and track objects flowing through their field of view, Richard and his colleagues use their observations to develop robotic aircraft. His research has led to advances in visual systems for controlling pilotless aircraft.

Richard has also been involved in TV science shows for children, including Scope and Totally Wild. Motivated by the outreach events in the ACT, Richard plans to develop similar programs with the other “visionaries” that they can perform throughout their research careers. He is currently working to set up such programs in Queensland.

Faran Sabeti
Faran’s work at the Australian National University is about developing new and better ways to diagnose Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which is the number one cause of blindness in Australia. Concerned about how this prominent eye disease affects the lives of the elderly, he is exploring ways to identify the early stages of AMD by testing the pupil’s response to light. If the condition is detected early enough it may be possible to prevent further deterioration.

On Vision Days Faran can be found at the Diseases of the Visual System station. He enjoys helping the kids to understand how their eyesight may be affected by different eye diseases using images and modified goggles. He hopes that through these events the kids not only become more aware of how to protect their eyesight, but also empathise with people who suffer from eye diseases.

Rizsa Albarracin
Rizsa says that her experience as a Young Visionary and her participation in outreach activities has taught her how to communicate well with people from different settings, especially those without scientific backgrounds. She believes that one of the key elements in effective communication is putting herself in the shoes of her audience.

Rizsa is in her first year of a PhD at the Australian National University. She is exploring how excessive exposure to damaging light can cause eyesight degeneration, and investigating new treatments to prevent or slow down the process.

Mandy Thoo is a Masters student in science communication at the Australian National University.