What is the research matrix?

What is the research matrix?
Focused, transparent, flexible and cohesive: characteristics of living eye tissue, the vitreous, that serve as a metaphor for Emory Eye Center's research matrix.

Faculty at Emory Eye Center have been asking themselves a critical question: In a world of competing priorities, how do we focus our research efforts?

To find and maintain the right balance among research strengths, societal needs, and fiscal constraints, the team has devised a strategy to help advance their work of protecting, improving, and prolonging vision. They call it their “research matrix,” and they are using it to keep themselves focused—to continually optimize their potential to help people see as well as they can see.

The research process in search of new or better tools for diagnosis and therapy is often, by nature, meandering and unpredictable. An idea may originate in informal conversation, attract interest from other colleagues, and engender additional trails of inquiry, which in turn may yield more questions than answers. Some research findings, including extremely important ones, are simply serendipitous, providing answers to questions that weren’t even being asked by those involved.

Research takes time, creativity, patience, imagination, fortitude, confidence, determination and money. It also takes discipline to maintain a steady course as well as flexibility and open-mindedness to know when to change course in the face of new need or opportunity.

At their annual retreat this past fall, Emory Eye Center faculty assessed the direction of their research, with the goal of articulating formal guidelines that could help steer their research priorities for both the short and long term. “We affirmed, first, that our research must center on translational initiatives, those that offer a direct benefit to patients,” says Timothy Olsen, director of the center. “Then we sought ways to determine the relative priority of current and future research efforts.”

The group wanted to make the most of our existing resources, says Olsen, so they asked three questions:

1. Where is our greatest expertise?
2. Where is our current and future funding being directed?
3. And what eye-related illnesses create the greatest disease burden worldwide?

The group then assessed research topics to see which rose to the top.

“A top-priority project, for example,” says Olsen, “would be one with strong departmental expertise and strong external funding that addressed a vision problem causing blindness both locally and throughout the world.” Examples include diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, neuroretinal degeneration and cataracts.

Matrix: A Place or Medium in Which Something Is Developed
Questions directing the Emory Eye Center’s research matrix
1. Where is our greatest expertise? 
2. Where is our current and future funding being directed? 
3. And what eye-related illnesses create the greatest disease burden worldwide? 

Current top five research priorities in the Emory Eye Center
1. Retinal degeneration and optic 
nerve disease
2. Global ophthalmology (GO-Emory)
3. Systemic disease and vision
4. Ocular oncology (eye cancer)
5. Refractive disease

A somewhat less common disease, however, could also qualify as a research priority. Olsen cites eye cancer as an example. The center has extraordinary expertise in this area, led by pathologist/oncologist Hans Grossniklaus, whose work is complemented by that of the ocular oncology team: retinal specialists Chris Bergstrom and Baker Hubbard and comprehensive physician Jill Wells, who also has training in ocular pathology.

In addition, says Olsen, the center’s team in orbital oncology (for cancer that occurs around the eye) includes oculoplastics specialist Ted Wojno, Brent Hayek and Joon Kim.

“All of this work,” he says, “is supported by both internal and external funding. So even though eye cancer affects a much smaller segment of the overall population and has a lower disease burden in the world, it remains a priority for us because of our extraordinary expertise.”

Another such example is trachoma, which is uncommon in the United States but highly problematic in developing countries. “Our global program, Global Ophthalmology at Emory [GO-Emory], with Danny Haddad, Colin Beckwith, Paul Courtright, and Susan Lewallen, extends our existing areas of expertise into high-impact international work.”

I see the research matrix concept as a way of helping us focus our department’s entire research portfolio toward a common vision. It’s an opportunity to consider our strengths, within a larger context of what is a priority outside of Emory. To me it’s an extraordinarily interesting concept–a bold way of dealing with our conflicting pressures in terms of research, and with the need to synergize our strengths so we can go a lot farther with our limited time and money. —Beau Bruce, MD

Olsen says the research matrix helped the group list its current top five research priorities. Retinal degeneration and optic nerve disease are logical as first priority, for example, because of growing societal need, with age-related macular degeneration currently the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years and older.

Ultimately, the research matrix helps us be good stewards of our resources, whether funding or talent, and helps us keep focus on where we need to be.