Your stories: Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith, UNSW

May 2018

We recently spoke with eye scientist and UniSuper member Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith from the University of New South Wales about her research and her feelings on coming back to work after a career break.

What drew you to eye research and what work do you specialise in?

I actually didn’t plan to enter the field of eye research at all and when I applied for the post doctorate position at the School of Optometry at UNSW, I had no experience in the area.

However, I started to learn about the retina and became fascinated by it, as it’s a remarkable biological system. I was also surprised at how few basic science researchers there were in the field (as most eye researchers are clinicians). So I thought I could bring a different train of thought to the field.

What’s been the most unexpected or interesting finding you’ve made?

We do a lot of research on Retinitis Pigmentosa—a genetic disorder that causes blindness.

We work with mice which have a genetic mutation similar to humans and mice which are carriers of Retinitis Pigmentosa. These mice don’t go blind but carry one copy of the mutation so can pass the disease on to their young.

Traditionally, it’s hard to know if you’re a carrier of a disease because you don’t have any of the symptoms. However, we found if you gave these carrier mice sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra) and then recorded electrical responses of the eye, we got a unique response. This could be useful to identify carriers of the disease in a non-invasive way.

This is significant, as one in every 50 people is estimated to be a carrier of some form of retinal degeneration and don’t even know it.

According to Vision Australia, more than 453,000 Australians are either blind or vision impaired, yet around 90% of blindness or vision impairment is preventable or treatable. Has your work explored whether people prioritise their eye health?

Much of my work is conducted at a clinic within the Centre for Eye Health, which is supported by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. The clinic aims to improve early detection of disease and prevent blindness.

We have done studies to show that once an individual starts showing signs of early disease—and is picked up by an optometrist and sent to the clinic for monitoring—there’s a good compliance rate of them returning for follow up appointments at the clinic. However, the challenge remains to get people to those initial appointments with their optometrists.

Has your work identified anything people can do to help prevent the onset of eye disease?

One of the key themes of my research is early detection. Very few treatments exist that can successfully restore sight once it’s lost. However, if eye disease is detected early enough, there are things we can do to prevent it getting worse. The key is not to wait until you notice a change in your vision. If you’re over 50, you should have annual eye exams, regardless.

Who—either in your public life or private life—inspires you?

My grandmother—sorry, it might be a bit lame. She’s the main reason I went into science.

When I was young, she took my brother and I out most school holidays and I always remember our visits to the Powerhouse Museum where she volunteered. We would stay for hours and have lunch in the members’ lounge, which lets you overlook the whole museum.

She was a scientist herself and was one of the first women to study Physics and Chemistry at Sydney University. They actually didn’t offer it to women before then. I followed in her footsteps and studied science there 40 years later.

You’ve recently returned to work after taking a break. From a personal/professional/financial perspective, have you had to change the way you think about work/life/money? Did you have to reassess your financial situation, and how did that feel?

Returning to work after having my daughter has been challenging. I was definitely in the habit of taking work home with me but now that I’m so busy at home with my daughter, I find I need to compartmentalise my time more and this has actually made me more efficient at getting tasks done during work hours.

I’ve also returned in a part-time capacity and have the added costs of day-care.. So financially, I’ve had to pay more attention to my finances and monthly spending. I’ve also started thinking about my future finances, and making sure there are things in place financially for my daughter in case anything was to happen to me.

And finally, a question we like to ask all of the members we interview—what does your ideal retirement look like?

Now that I have a young one, I really appreciate the help I get from retired family members. So I hope to spend my retirement helping my little one raise her family.

I also love travelling so would like to be able to visit some more places on my bucket list with my husband.