Joan O'Brien sitting at deskAs many of you may know, I will be stepping down from my role as Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology on June 30, 2022, as my second six-year term comes to an end. 


The past 12 years have been filled with progress and change. I am so proud of the achievements of our faculty, staff, alumni, and trainees. Truthfully, as I sit down to write this column, I do not know where to start, as there are simply too many accomplishments, special moments, and relationships to acknowledge. I will do my best to choose among these highlights, knowing that it likely will not scratch the surface of all that our teams have accomplished this past decade.  


Since 2010, our faculty has grown from 24 to 66 inspiring individuals. The Department now offers 17 subspecialties and sees more than 130,000 patient visits each year. We have four Master Clinicians and four Advisory Deans, representing 20% of our clinical faculty. In a recent climate survey across UPenn, ophthalmology faculty ranked #1 and staff ranked #2 in job satisfaction among the 19 departments surveyed. These numbers, though impressive, do not fully capture the generosity, compassion, and bravery of our faculty members and trainees. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, many of these individuals were the very first to volunteer in triage tents and testing sites. As a team, our Department was able to serve our community, maintain our research and education missions, provide urgent and emergent patient care from March through June of 2020, and reach and exceed pre-COVID outpatient and surgical volumes by the fall of 2020.


With respect to our research mission, the Department has become one of the top two recipients of National Eye Institute funding nationwide for the past five years. We have also developed strong and consistent sources of non-traditional funding (foundation, non-profit, corporate), which account for roughly 60% of additional research awards each year. Since 2010, we have raised more than $40M in philanthropy. Our faculty consistently publish in high-impact journals such as NatureNature MedicineNature GeneticsLancetNew England Journal of Medicine, and PNAS. We have built strong ties with the vision scientist community at UPenn, which includes 116 primary investigators and their lab members, including our ophthalmology department faculty. We enjoy frequent collaborations, joint grants, publications, and weekly seminar series with these brilliant individuals who span many schools at UPenn.


The educational mission remains a core focus of our Department. The residency program, which receives more than 600 applications for five positions each year, consistently matches with diverse, competitive, and compassionate individuals. The program has significantly increased surgical volume for residents (88% increase since 2010 for average number of cataract surgeries per resident), along with participation in many other subspecialty surgeries. The number of grants/trials per alumnus ranks in the top 1% of programs nationwide, suggesting that the Department is training academic leaders of the future. Third-year residents consistently secure first- or second-choice fellowships. Engagement with medical students at the Perelman School of Medicine is also robust, with up to 10% or more of the graduating class pursuing residencies in ophthalmology each year. I am always proud (and not surprised) to see the very high School of Medicine teaching evaluations that our faculty members receive each year. Honors such as Pearl Awards, the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, the Penn Medicine Dean’s Award, and honorary induction of faculty into Alpha Omega Alpha are certainly well-deserved.


Our faculty, staff, and trainees travel throughout Philadelphia and across the globe to care for underserved populations. Programs such as Penn Sight Savers and Puentes de Salud, staffed by volunteer physicians, residents, and medical students, provide comprehensive ophthalmic care to patients who are often uninsured and undocumented. Our faculty also lead many screening events across Philadelphia, providing free glaucoma screenings, glasses giveaways, and low vision device giveaways with training on the use of these life-altering tools. At every opportunity, we seek to help patients obtain insurance, provide referrals for follow-up treatment, and screen for systemic disease with ocular manifestations. The Penn Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation’s Vision Loss Support Group, founded in 2017, has now provided support and training to dozens of patients with visual impairments that can no longer be improved through medical or surgical means. In the past decade, our faculty have also travelled to more than 30 countries to provide eye care to desperately at-risk and underserved populations internationally.


These accomplishments truly reflect the talent, compassion, and hard work of our faculty, staff, and trainees. However, when I consider my time at Scheie, it is not only these achievements that come to mind, but also the smaller moments, the relationships, and the laughter that I remember so fondly. I remember celebrating the ribbon cutting ceremony after years of renovations at Scheie were completed in 2014. I loved dancing at the Rittenhouse Hotel with so many of you at our alumni events each year. I looked forward to getting to know the new residents every July, and to giving lectures to the medical students on genetics. I am grateful for the patience of the staff who tried to teach me to line dance at our winter holiday parties. I enjoyed watching the speakers, singers, and dancers at our annual African American History Month Celebration each winter. Of course, some memories are not as pleasant to recount, such as the time that I got stuck in an elevator between floors (and had to crawl out) on the day of my very first faculty meeting. I will miss so many big and small moments. 


However, I am excited to share that the next phase of my career will also be at UPenn. For the past decade, I have led a large genetics study on glaucoma in African ancestry individuals. We received an $11.25M R01 grant in 2014, and just recently received a $6.6M renewal of this grant for the next five years. This study has grown in ways that I never could have imagined. More than 10,200 individuals in Philadelphia have now enrolled in our cohort, with full genetic information, including genome-wide association study data, whole-exome data, and now whole-genome data, with the ability to re-contact our participants. This rich dataset presents a new opportunity to study the genetics of glaucoma and other diseases that overaffect African ancestry individuals, yet remain understudied.


I am now in the process of launching a new Center at the Perelman School of Medicine to meet this need. The mission of this Center will be to elucidate the genetics of diseases that overaffect African ancestry individuals and to develop targeted diagnostic and therapeutic options for these individuals. We will continue to form close partnerships with researchers investigating these complex genetic diseases. Industry collaborations will help to bring genetic findings from bench to bedside, with several companies expressing interest in working together. We will also prioritize the close partnerships formed with Black community leaders in Philadelphia to address health disparities, provide free disease screenings, and spread awareness about our findings as they continue to develop.


I am so grateful to the colleagues, alumni, trainees, patients, and friends who have made these 12 years at Scheie the most rewarding of my life. I am looking forward to welcoming the new Chairman, continuing to support the Department, and embarking on this new phase of my career.


I wish you and your families a happy and healthy holiday.


Joan O’Brien, MD

Share This Page: