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OSU looks into optometry research at COSI

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Equipment inside the EyePod lab allows researchers to study the eye muscles of COSI visitors. Credit: Jay Panandiker | Engagement Editor

Equipment inside the EyePod lab allows researchers to study the eye muscles of COSI visitors. Credit: Jay Panandiker | Engagement Editor

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As guests walk through the Life exhibition at COSI, they have the opportunity to test their strength and examine how organs work. At the end of the exhibit stand three glass rooms, which are called the Labs in Life. The space is used by Ohio State as labs to conduct research in optometry, pharmacology and linguistics.

The optometry lab, called the EyePod, is run by Melissa Bailey, a professor in the College of Optometry. When visitors come to COSI, they can visit the lab and contribute to the research. Bailey said researchers take photos of the visitors’ eye muscles, which provide data for research.

Having a research lab in a museum is something that is unique to COSI, said Josh Sarver, senior director of experience design and production for the museum. He added that other museums have seen the labs and are now trying to replicate them. He said it was a great step forward for both the museum and the university.

“It’s not a person sitting behind a glass cleaning dinosaur bones, which is what you often see in a museum,” Sarver said. “This is the real deal — it’s real research.”

Bailey said it is often hard to get research grants from federal institutions for optometry research, so the EyePod gives her the opportunity to get a large sampling of data at a relatively cheaper cost. Since the lab opened in 2012, it has conducted three large-scale studies, which in total have examined at least 1,500 visitors. If the team were to take the traditional research approach instead of using the EyePod, it is likely it would take more than a decade and 10 times as much money to collect the same amount of data, Bailey said.

“If you had to schedule those people here at the university, and pay for their parking, and pay them for their time, it would have never happened,” she said.

Bailey said one of the main goals when opening the labs was allowing the guests to be part of real science and allowing them to talk with scientists who are engaging in real research. She added that the general public also has the opportunity to see a lab in action, and children visiting the museum might be inspired to go into a science field after seeing scientists in action.

“So the nice thing is that when children are there, they can see a real science research project,” Bailey said. “Hopefully it encourages young women to think they can be a researcher when they grow up. In my mind, my main job is to do research, but in this case it has lots of benefits for lots of people.”

Bailey said her team has faced some challenges during its time running the lab. She said grants, which are often competitive, are needed to ensure the lab can be staffed. Additionally, the team had to figure out how to get the most data from the COSI guests in the time they were willing to spend in the lab.

From time to time, visitors who are being studied in the lab also learn that their vision is less than perfect, Bailey said. She added that while it’s not one of the goals of the lab to screen patients, it is an important consequence. She added that children often do not realize that they are nearsighted, so the lab provides the opportunity for researchers to tell parents when their child is not seeing well.

“It shows that vision is important,” Bailey said. “It is the sense you use most to interact with the world, unless, of course, you don’t have it.”

Bailey said the lab studies the ciliary muscle, an eye muscle that was not visible for a long time, and for many years, the muscle was only visible via ultrasound, which made it difficult to research on a large scale.

However, a few years ago the university developed an alternative method to research the muscle. The lab is one of the few in the world researching it, and Bailey said she believes OSU has more data about the ciliary muscle than any other institution.

Jackie Davis, who coordinates outreach for the College of Optometry, said the EyePod fits into the larger goal of outreach for the college. The college’s outreach also includes clinics around Columbus, many in underserved areas. Davis said the university’s outreach benefits students because it allows them to see conditions they might otherwise not see in a classroom setting — including people who have never had vision care before.

“When we have clinics on campus, we often see college students and faculty who are generally healthy people,” Davis said. “Outreach gives students a different perspective. It gives them a different idea of what they can do when they graduate.”

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between The Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.

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