ARVO Foundation

Seizing the opportunity
DCERF recipient Basma Baccouche shares her experience at ARVO 2017

Basma Baccouche and Hashim Ali-Khan at ARVO 2017
Basma Baccouche, MRes, had never been to an international scientific meeting before attending the ARVO 2017 Annual Meeting in Baltimore. Baccouche, a PhD student from Tunisia, attended as one of the recipients of the ARVO Foundation’s nine Developing Country Eye Researcher Travel Fellowships (DCERFs). She was paired with two volunteer mentors, ARVO members Neena Haider, PhD, of Schepens Eye Research Institute and Pinakin Davey, PhD, of Western University. With their helpful guidance through the week, Baccouche dove into the ARVO 2017 eager to learn more about her area of interest: retinal neurodegeneration.

Baccouche’s journey to Baltimore began the previous year, when she participated in a short-term internship with the team of the Penn State Hershey Eye Center under the supervision of ARVO member Alistair Barber, PhD. It was Barber who encouraged Baccouche to submit an abstract based on her internship work and recommended that she apply for a DCERF grant.

Once her abstract was accepted, the question still lingered if she’d have the funds to travel to Baltimore. “Although I was happy that my work was accepted for a poster presentation, I was not sure that I would be able to attend the Meeting until I was notified that I had been selected to receive the DCERF award,” says Baccouche. Ultimately, she received the fellowship specifically funded by the ARVO Foundation’s Women in Eye and Vision Research (WEAVR) as a result of its fundraising activities.

As the WEAVR-sponsored fellow, Baccouche enjoyed a front-row seat at the Ninth Annual WEAVR Luncheon, where she had a chance to meet the luncheon’s guest speaker, Janine Austin Clayton, MD, FARVO. Clayton directs the NIH Office for Research on Women’s Health. Baccouche appreciated other social aspects of the ARVO Meeting that provided her with valuable networking opportunities. “I enjoyed meeting other international graduate students who shared the same passion and interest for the field of retinal neurodegeneration but also the same challenges to overcome,” she says.

On the final day of the Meeting, Baccouche had the opportunity to present her work during the Thursday morning poster session. Presenting her project, “Astaxanthin reduces retinal cell death and loss of neuron and glial cell markers in diabetic rats,” was worth the wait, according to Baccouche. It turned out to be her favorite part of the Meeting. She admits that before arriving in Baltimore, it was inconceivable to her that she would be able to discuss her research with leading scientists whose work she has been reading for years. She recounted with disbelief that Elia J. Duh, PhD, from Johns Hopkins University and Francois Paquet-Durant, PhD, from the University of Tübingen stopped by to offer feedback on her work.

Energized by the Meeting, Baccouche is eager to find the right opportunities to propel her career forward. Her long-term career plan is to obtain a faculty research and teaching position in Tunisia, but she’s hoping to secure a postdoctoral fellowship in Europe or the U.S. first — to broaden her perspective and build her network. “During the ARVO Meeting, I learned to not overlook the value of networking,” says Baccouch. “I also realized the importance of taking initiatives and having the courage to seize opportunity when it comes.” AJ