Seeing far and wide

Timothy Olsen

Timothy Olsen, F. Phinizy Calhoun, Sr. Chair of Ophthalmology

"If you drive through Western Kansas in late June before they cut the wheat, and the wind is blowing, it's almost like being in a ship on the ocean. You get a sense of wide open spaces, all around you."

That's Timothy Olsen, F. Phinizy Calhoun Sr. Chair of Ophthalmology, who grew up in small-town Kansas and spent the summers farming with his grandfather. For just more than one year, Olsen has been tending the field (and steering the ship) of the Emory Eye Center as director. It's a challenging job. Besides administration and fund-raising, he does everything his faculty members do: patient care, teaching, and research.

Olsen's resume shows a progression of honors, from his MD at the University of Kansas to award-winning research on proteins of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the development of new surgical instruments and methods, and six awards for distinguished teaching—at the universities of Kansas, Wisconsin, and Minnesota,
as well as Emory.

An active physician-scientist, Olsen has an NIH grant to study the way proteins function in damaged retina cells. Additionally, he's researching ways to replace those damaged cells with healthy ones from elsewhere in the retina, and in collaboration with biomedical engineers at Georgia Tech, he's developing instruments especially for such surgery. Another ongoing project is his collaboration with Eye Center colleagues on the use of synthetic bear bile acids to treat diseases that can cause loss of vision, such as AMD and retinitis pigmentosa.

In the mid-1990s, Olsen spent two years on Emory's campus as a retina fellow, specializing in diseases of the retina. The experience made him eager to return. 

"Training at Emory gives you a deep appreciation for the culture of this place," Olsen says. "Emory offers one of the most challenging ophthalmology programs in the country, but the people here work well together and share their knowledge generously. It's not surprising that many of our trainees, like me, want to come back and join our faculty."

On his 2008 return to Emory, Olsen inherited a program that ranks in the top 10 in the country. His vision for the program's future, like his job itself, is wide-ranging. While building the faculty to keep pace with a large and growing number of patients, Olsen plans to move forward on other endeavors close to his heart, including institutional partnerships with the CDC and Georgia Tech. Research initiatives already under way include the Ocular Oncology Group, which combines the expertise of ophthalmology with research at Emory Winship Cancer Institute, and the Predictive Health Group, a team of ophthalmology faculty helping develop genetics profiling. Ultimately, all these efforts benefit patients, Olsen says. 

Olsen's lifelong, farm-influenced habit of rising early brings him to the office around 4:00 a.m. "Since age 7, when I came out of the doctor's office with my first pair of glasses and could finally see clearly, I've wanted to help people see better," Olsen says.

Ginger Pyron

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