Maureen A. McCall, PhD

Follow your passion

Originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of ARVONews

Maureen A. McCall, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences in the University of Louisville School of Medicine. She holds joint appointments in the departments of anatomical sciences and neurobiology and in psychological and brain sciences.

She also serves as chair of the Neurotransporters, Receptors and Calcium Signaling Study Section of the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, and holds the Kentucky Lions Eye Research Endowed Chair. Her research has focused on using electrophysiological techniques to evaluate normal retinal function, dysfunction caused by blinding retinal diseases and the restoration of function using a variety of therapeutic strategies.

A member of ARVO since she was a graduate student, McCall has served the organization in many capacities, including the Annual Meeting Program Committee (VN Section) and chair of the Publications Committee. Currently, she is a member of the ARVO journal TVST Editorial Board.

What was your inspiration for becoming a researcher in the field of ophthalmology?

As an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, I took two courses in the same semester: visual perception and neurophysiology. Their subject matter was so exciting, and they opened up a completely new awareness of how we see and the potential ways that neurons in the brain worked. This was the spark for the rest of my career in vision research.

What have been some of the highlights of your work?

Some of my personal highlights include the first time I recorded visual responses in neurons in the visual cortex and later from retinal ganglion cells; when I made my first knockout mouse, where I targeted the GABAC ρ1 receptor and then saw the changes that occurred in retinal processing; and when I went on a sabbatical and learned to record from bipolar cells using a whole cell patch clamp.

Also, because my lab frequently records the spiking activity of neurons, it is always a highlight for me when I get to help the students and postdocs in the lab to characterize the visually evoked responses of retinal ganglion cells. I never get tired of listening to their spiking activity while watching the visual stimulus presented to that cell. And most recently, I received an endowed chair, the Kentucky Lions Eye Research Chair. This certainly was a highlight.

What can you tell us about the research or academic projects you are working on now?

We have worked on rodent models of retinitis pigmentosa, using retina transplants and prosthetic implants to try to rescue retinal function. It was very exciting when we first demonstrated that we could evoke responses in the retinas of these animals long after they had lost normal visual function.

We are currently working on a transgenic pig model of retinitis pigmentosa and collaborating on gene therapy strategies. We are still in the early stages, but the idea that we might be able to find a way to save cone function is exciting and I hope will be a future highlight.

The translational arm of the research in the lab is related to our work with the transgenic pigs to develop several different strategies to rescue/restore cone function. The more basic work in the lab is targeted at understanding how the retinal circuit uses different excitatory and inhibitory receptors to create about 20 different representations of the visual world. In particular, we are working on the roles of the metabotropic glutamate receptor G-protein coupled cascade in setting up inputs through the one parallel pathway and of the four different subunits of the glycine receptor and how each is used to create diversity of visual signaling.

Based on your years of professional experience, what advice would you offer scientists about moving ahead in the field?

My best advice is to follow the work that you are most passionate about. It’s the work that helps you to get out of bed in the morning and be eager to get to work. Your training and your mentors should help you to determine what that is. Be open to lots of possibilities and don’t be afraid that doing something that is not traditional is a sign of failure. If you love it and you can excel in your chosen profession, then that’s what you should do. As for strategies for moving ahead in your field, make sure you set aside enough time to be able to perform your best work and don’t settle for less. Speak up, ask questions. Ask for opportunities.

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