Andrew Bower, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Clinical and Translational Imaging Section (CTIS) at the National Eye Institute, plans to use his K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award to study the function of retinal cells using adaptive optics (AO), a technology that enables an unprecedented view of live cell interactions in the retina.
AO enhances the resolution of retinal images captured through common noninvasive techniques, such as scanning laser ophthalmoscopy and optical coherence tomography. Without AO, the eye’s cornea, lens, and vitreous gel distort images produced with these light-based techniques. Using a series of mirrors and computational algorithms, AO corrects for light distortions, enabling scientists to image retinal cells in significantly greater detail.
“Up until now, we've primarily used adaptive optics to see cellular structures. I’m hoping to start using it to get at cellular function,” he said. “The pigments inside retinal cells help us see contrast inside retinal cells when using adaptive optics. Pigment dynamics -- their accumulation and depletion -- are also an indicator of cellular function”.
Specifically, he plans to study in living humans the function of intracellular pigment dynamics in the retinal pigment epithelium, a layer of tissue that nourishes and supports the retina’s light-sensing photoreceptors. In leading causes of blindness such as age-related macular degeneration, RPE cells die, which leads to the death of photoreceptors and resulting vision loss.
After earning his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Bower was recruited by CTIS senior investigator, Johnny Tam, Ph.D., to come to NEI in 2019 as a postdoc to help design and build a second-generation AO system from the ground up.
“I've been super fortunate that Dr. Tam has built some great collaborations with world-class researchers outside of NIH. That’s been enormously helpful for getting the AO system up and running and tweaking it day by day,” said Bower, who will be a research fellow in CTIS upon receiving his K99/R00 award later this year.
“When I first came here, the AO system [which was to become CTIS’s second] was basically a table with cloth hanging over it. And now it's just this crazy system with mirrors and lenses everywhere. It was extremely exciting to see that from the very beginning to now where we are regularly imaging patients visiting the NEI eye clinic,” he said.
K99/R00 application tips
The K99/R00 provides a runway for postdocs seeking to transition from mentored positions to tenure track positions at academic institutions in the U.S. It does so by packing two phases into the same award: 1 to 2 years of support for a mentored phase (K99), followed by up to 3 years of support for independent research (R00).
Bower attributes his success in attaining a K99/R00 to getting an early start on the application process and seeking advice from others who had successfully applied. “There’s a network of K99/R00 trainees at NIH who can offer a ton of advice about the application process. Their advice helped me enormously in crafting a stronger application the second time around,” he said.
Another tip: “Give yourself enough time to apply more than once.” There are three submission dates annually, and the whole process of submitting once and then resubmitting can take over a year. “Start thinking about applying soon after your postdoc begins.” Applicants must already be in a mentored position, and they must have no more than 4 years of postdoc research experience at the time of their initial or subsequent resubmitted application.
“Don’t get discouraged if you’re not selected the first time you apply,” he added. Depending on the institute, success rates range from 13% to 36%.
For more information about the K99/R00 award, visit the NIH webpage on the award.