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Up Front | Jun 2015

A Pint of Ophthalmology

My recent exposure to A Pint of Science—a science festival running simultaneously in pubs across the globe—sparked a fire in me to keep a closer eye on the research and development not only in our field of ophthalmology but also in other fields of science. Attending this event was a good reminder that everyone can benefit from cross-pollination of ideas with other like-minded individuals, and this is the main idea of my editorial this month.

I had never heard of A Pint of Science, but when I caught wind that my good friend Michael Mrochen, PhD, had been invited to speak at the event hosted by a pub in Dublin, I knew I had to go. I had heard Michael speak in seminars and at conferences many times (and I had been in my fair share of pubs with him, too), but I had never heard him address a group of pub-goers on a scientific topic. I was a little smug, too, thinking that the Irish were particularly innovative with the idea of bringing science to the pub.

As it turns out, Michael could not make the event due to unforeseen circumstances, but I attended anyway. I used some handy tools of science (a smartphone, the Internet, and a wireless connection) to find out more about A Pint of Science, and I was amazed at what I learned: In 2012, two research scientists at Imperial College London organized an event called Meet the Researchers, where they brought people affected by different medical conditions into their labs to show them the kind of research they were engaged in. It proved to be motivational for both the attendees and the hosts, and the scientists figured that there might be merit in bringing more science to more people.

The first A Pint of Science festival, held in May 2013, proved to be a phenomenal success. Now, the event is a reality in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, and the United States. This year, it took place over three evenings in May. At the Dublin event that I attended, there were three presentations, some of which included experiments right in the pub using dry ice, folded paper jets, leaf blowers, toilet paper, and just about anything imaginable.

As much as it was a fun event, A Pint of Science was also a fabulous way to share knowledge, enthusiasm, and passion and to cross-pollinate ideas. What was made clear to me and the other attendees is that most research is performed in silos; researchers know their subject matter backward and forward, but they do not know what their neighbors’ research silos are all about. Some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs occur when cross-pollination takes place and ideas from one silo are transferred to another, no matter how unrelated those ideas may have at first appeared.

The evening also gave me a deeper appreciation of what science has meant to humanity and, specifically, how our field of ophthalmology depends on science. Think of lasers and eye-trackers: We are all still impressed with exactly how cool they are, but venturi and peristaltic pumps that allow us to do sophisticated cataract surgery and delicate vitreoretinal surgery are based on scientific principles discovered hundreds of years ago. The scientific principle—presenting a hypothesis, doing an experiment, and then drawing a conclusion—is as ancient as science itself, yet it still forms the backbone of modern science and research today. Imagine what the Newtons, Galileis, and Copernicuses of yesteryear would think of our endeavours and achievements today.

Because I know of no other profession that likes talking about what we do quite as much as ophthalmology, perhaps we can take a page from the creators of A Pint of Science and have our discussions over a few beers, a glass of wine, or H2O for the teetotallers. Such activity may just help us make the same kinds of breakthroughs our predecessors did. Cross-pollination among super-specialists can lead only to further advances, and, even in the event that it does not, it may give us a better appreciation of the work that our colleagues in other silos are doing.

Incredibly, there are still ophthalmologists in practice today who actively discourage their patients from having refractive surgery, as it is “still experimental” and we are treating “a perfectly normal eye.” Perhaps sharing A Pint of Ophthalmology with those ophthalmologists might just give them a different view of the subject.

We live in an amazing era for science and ophthalmology and are fortunate to be ophthalmologists at this time in history. Thank you, science. Cheers for that pint, too—Prost. Salute. Gezondheit. Skal. Salud. Slainte. n

Arthur B. Cummings, MB ChB, FCS(SA), MMed(Ophth), FRCS(Edin)
Associate Chief Medical Editor