Advancing eye care through physics: a visionary collaboration between UW researchers


When physicists collaborate with professors at the UW School of Optometry and Vision Science, the resulting innovation is visionary.

Dmitry Pushin, a UW professor in the department of physics and astronomy, has been researching the human eye’s ability to see quantum light alongside his team at the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC).

Pushin and his team found that humans can see quantum light. Now, they just needed to find a way to apply this finding in the real world.

A discussion between Pushin and another physicist brought his attention to the work of Ben Thompson, a professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science.

Thompson and his team have been researching macular degeneration and how light is perceived in both the brain and the eyes.

The two teams collaborated to develop a device that can potentially be used by optometrists in clinical settings to see how an eye tracks polarized light. This allows optometrists to detect early signs of macular degeneration, as opposed to later stages when irreversible damage has already occurred.

In a patient with a healthy eye, detection of polarized light will appear as a fuzzy spot in their vision known as Haidinger’s brush. Haidinger’s brushes are caused when the eye produces an image within itself in response to perceiving polarized light.

The device, which consists of a camera that shines polarized light onto the retina, was built by Connor Kapahi, a PhD student, and Dusan Sarenac, technical lead at IQC’S Transformative Quantum Technologies (TQT) group. It is currently being tested at UW’s Optometry Clinic, and will also be tested at the Centre for Eye and Vision Research (CEVR) in Hong Kong, of which Thompson is the CEO.

“Our collaboration is an unusual one, not only because it connects a relatively abstract topic in quantum technology to an established medical field in vision research, but also because it spans continents,” Kapahi told UW Magazine.

This interdisciplinary research was made possible by UW’s unique IP policy, which permits researchers ownership over their intellectual property while fostering collaboration across multiple teams.

“Its unique intellectual property policy, that allows researchers to own what they invent, encourages people to work together and try out new areas,” Pushin told UW Magazine.

Interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to monumental innovations and find solutions to problems that would otherwise go unsolved.

“Something extra can be found through collaboration,” Kapahi told UW Magazine. “By collaborating across fields that have historically been separate, researchers can find opportunities to solve problems that their colleagues might have thought intractable. I see interdisciplinary collaboration as a cornerstone of the future of academic research. ”