Shilpa Gorla: Research is the road to a cure

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

February marks the long-awaited GRADflix showcase where some of the many talented graduate students at the University of Waterloo can win prizes for presenting their research in a one-minute video. Among this year’s 15 GRADflix finalists is Shilpa Gorla, a PhD candidate in vision science and biology. With her supervisor, Dr. Vivian Choh, she is working to find a lens softening compound by changing the fluid flow in the lens of the eye. This could lead to a cure for presbyopia, the near-universal condition in middle-aged and older people where the hardening of the lens results in difficulty seeing up close without reading glasses.

Check out Shilpa’s GRADflix video on YouTube.

What drew you to research and academia?

In my master’s program in Medical Anatomy at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, I did my research on the retina with a focus on neuroprotective molecule expression in light-damaged retinas. From there, I started thinking that, with research, we could potentially find a cure for something. So, I decided I wanted to pursue further research in the eye for my PhD. I had heard about Dr. Vivian Choh, so I approached her to see if she would supervise my PhD. She is knowledgeable, energetic and very passionate about the work. I’m really grateful for that.

How would you describe your GRADflix experience?

I first heard about GRADflix last year when one of my friends, Megala Ramasamy, participated in it. I thought the concept was very interesting—presenting our research in a way that conveys the topic to the general public. Also, because I enjoy making food blogs on Instagram, I have an interest in photography and making videos, so I thought that experience would be useful if I chose to participate. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. I learned many things in the competition. It’s not solely about your research–you should also focus on your graphics and how to present to your audience. Watching some of the other finalistists’ videos, I thought there were some really amazing examples of presenting research. Everyone was so creative!

Why is your research important to the ordinary person?

Everyone over the age of 40 is affected by presbyopia, but wearing reading glasses and contact lenses is an inconvenient solution. Since my mother was 45 she has said, “I don’t like wearing glasses!” If we can find a lens-softening compound, it would of course be of interest to pharmaceutical companies, but it would also increase the quality of life of all the people affected by presbyopia.

What are your plans for future research?

Right now, we are doing studies on chicken lenses, so the next step would be to look at how this research can be translated to humans. However, my research will only be with chicken lenses. 

Beyond this project, I would also like to continue with retina research, specifically, retinal regeneration after damage caused by neurodegenerative diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD). I also have an interest in teaching because after my master’s, I did 2 years of teaching in Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, India. I love teaching!

Research seems to be such a demanding project that is never fully complete, so how do you avoid burnout?

I prioritize self-care and effective time management to maintain both my physical and mental well-being. I do some activities on campus—for instance, I’m doing yoga daily to improve my mental and physical health.