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March 18, 2002

Undergraduate course an 'eye-opening' experience

By Joy Bell


There’s something positively eye-catching about Biology 475.

First, there’s its title: “Biology of the Eye.” But that title also has the distinction of the being the only undergraduate course taught by School of Medicine faculty, specifically, the Department of Ophthalmology.

In the five years the course has been offered, it has gained enrollment and has been quite popular among both undergraduates and several graduate students in molecular biology. Cited in course evaluations as “refreshing” and “interesting,” the course draws on the expertise of various researchers in ophthalmology to teach in their respective areas.

In fact, the Emory Eye Center not only provides instructors for the course, but also meeting space—in its Calhoun Auditorium in the South Clinic’s tunnel level. Undergraduates meet in the same auditorium where Grand Rounds for ophthalmology residents are held.

“This is a course that will last a lifetime,” said course creator and director Henry Edelhauser, the Sylvia M. and Frank W. Ferst Professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Eye Center’s research program. “These students learn everything about the eye—from embryology to diseases, conditions and surgery options. They also come away knowing what to look for in a good eye exam.”

Currently, 36 full-time students are enrolled with two students auditing the class. Medical student and teaching assistant Nicholas Kiefer took the class himself just last year in preparation for his career as a physician.

“It was great to interact with all the different ophthalmology professors, and it was really interesting to learn about the various ophthalmic issues as an undergraduate biology major,” Kiefer said. “I particularly liked how specialized the course was, especially for an undergraduate course.”

The students also enjoy the diversity of faculty, Edelhauser said. Some 20 researchers and other professionals in the Department of Ophthalmology teach in their particular fields of expertise, something the students seem to appreciate. “It’s like going to a new class every time,” one student said in a course evaluation.

The semester begins with an overview of the eye, common vision problems, ocular anatomy and embryology. It progresses to the lens, cornea, infections, vision correction (refraction, including refractive surgery), and then explores in more detail anatomy, glaucoma, ocular pharmacology and the retina.

The final classes deal with diseases of the retina, eye muscles, neuro-ophthalmology, electrophysiology, pathology and low vision (vision strongly impaired by refractive errors or disease, requiring special help in restoring useable vision).

A recent class, “Evolution of the Eye,” taught by Eye Center researcher Machelle Pardue, not only provided detailed, comparative anatomy of the human eye with other animals and insects, it even delved into the realm of the philosophical, addressing the mystification with which Charles Darwin held the eye’s complexity.

“This course is a great recruiting ground for future physicians and researchers,” said Thomas Aaberg, chair of ophthalmology and director of the Eye Center. “We are pleased to be able to offer this service to the University while at the same time potentially impressing these young students with the importance of the
field of medicine and ophthalmology.”