Spotlight on members

Get to know ARVO President Stephen C. Pflugfelder, MD, FARVO

image of Stephen Pflugfelder, MDStephen C. Pflugfelder, MD, FARVO, is professor and holder of the James and Margaret Elkins Chair and director of the Ocular Surface Center in the department of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine. He also serves as the ARVO Cornea Section Trustee. Pflugfelder began his term as ARVO president in May 2020. In this issue of ARVONews he offers a glimpse into his professional background and shares his vision for ARVO during his tenure.

1.       What were the most influential factors that helped you choose your career path?

I was very fortunate to start my career as a clinician scientist at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami where the chairman and my colleagues were very supportive of my research. I also found a great mentor in Dr. Sally Atherton, a former ARVO president and executive vice president (EVP). She taught me how to turn my ideas into testable hypotheses and provided guidance with writing my initial research grants. She also provided lab space and support for my research. This invauable support set me on a path to beccome an independent investigator and has taught me the value of mentorship which I have tried to pay forward.

2.       What have been some of the highlights of your career to date?

I must admit that my career achievements have far exceeed my expectations. I became interested in dry eye at a time when there was little known about the effects of dryness on the eye surface and the condition was considered simply an annoyance that could be treated with artificial tears. While looking for a possible viral link to the autoimmune condition, Sjögren syndrome, my group serindipitously discovered high levels of inflammatory mediators in the tears and surface epithelium in dry eye. Finding an inflammatory component in dry eye provided a clear direction for my career that has focused on discovering the key inflammatory pathways and mediators that are induced by desiccating stress and that cause epithelial disease and irritation in dry eye.

My research has dovetailed with development of new anti-inflammatory therapeutic approaches for dry eye. I’ve been fortunate to maintain funding from the National Eye Institute throughout my career and I’ve met and worked with some amazing researchers and thought leaders who have inspired me. In 2000, I was able to create an Ocular Surface Center at my institution, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. I’ve given numeous keynote lectures, most notably the Jackson Memorial Lecture at the 2011 American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) meeting and the Binkhorst Lecture at the 2019 American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) meeting.

3.       Tell us about your involvement with ARVO through the years.

The 1985 ARVO Annual Meeting was my first exposure to vision research, as well as the first opportunity to present my research to a peer group. I’ve attended almost every Annual Meeting since then. I’ve been an active program participant, presenting my research and participating as a presenter, organizer or moderator in numerous symposia and SIGs. I was elected cornea trustee four years ago and have served on the Commercial Relationships and Finance committees. I also worked with ARVO Immediate Past President Daniel Stamer on a survey to improve access to high quality eye tissue for researchers.

4.       We are living in extraordinary times due to COVID-19. As a clinician/researcher scientist, what are your thoughts on its effects on the eye and vision community?

The 2019 novel coronavirus can infect receptor expressing ocular surface epithelial cells, particularly the conjunctival goblet cells. This can cause conjunctivitis and it appears that virus transmission can occur via the eye. This pandemic has affected the vision community in many ways, altering clinical policies and procedure, the ways we interact and the methods used for information sharing. I know the entire vision community is looking forward to returning to more normal practices. 

5.       What are your thoughts for our next Annual Meeting, ARVO 2021?

I’ve been told by ARVO Executive Director Iris Rush that ARVO will hold an Annual Meeting in 2021. We all hope this will be a full live meeting, but I know the ARVO staff is preparing for virtual options if a live meeting is not possible. We have invited two internationally recognized keynote speakers: Dr. Jonathan Kipnis, who will speak on the function of innate immune cells and effects of immune cytokines on brain function and behavior at the opening session and Dr. Helen Blau, who will speak on the potential of stem cells and regenerative medicine at the closing session.

6.       What vision or hopes do you have for 2020-21 as ARVO president?

I will serve to the best of my ability to maintain ARVO as the premiere vision research organization. I’ll work with the ARVO administration, ARVO Board and EVP to respond to challenges of the pandemic and to promote policies that improve diversity and inclusion in ARVO and the vision research community. I will also work with the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR) to interface with government and funding agencies to highlight high-impact discoveries in vision research and to stress the importance of funding young and minortity researchers to increase diversity in our field.