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Breakthrough in Sight: Brian Samuels, MD, PhD

Brian Samuels, MD, PhD, clearly remembers the moment he became hooked on scientific research. As a neurobiology doctoral student, he was toiling away in the laboratory at 2 am when an experiment yielded a key result.

“At 2 am I knew a very small piece of information about the universe that no one else knew,” Dr. Samuels says. “That is both humbling and powerful at the same time. Once I experienced that feeling, it created an inner drive to continue searching for new discoveries. Even though it has been 13 years since that pivotal moment, I can tell you that discovering something new, no matter how large or small, never gets old.”

Now, as an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology, Dr. Samuels – who is trained as both a basic science researcher and medical doctor – splits his time between the laboratory and clinic. He spends 4 days a week in the lab pursuing discoveries that could make a difference to the glaucoma patients he sees on his clinic day.

Dr. Samuels completed a combined MD-PhD program at Indiana University before coming to UAB for a residency in ophthalmology. After residency he completed clinical and research fellowships in glaucoma at Duke University. This extensive formal training on both sides of the fence gave him a unique perspective.

“Clinician-scientists really do live with one foot in both worlds,” Dr. Samuels says. “We can bridge the gap between understanding the discoveries being made in basic science research, and we also recognize what our fellow clinicians need to better treat their patients. For this reason, clinician-scientists make great research collaborators. We can help find ways to translate bench research to clinical practice more quickly.”

Samuels conducts independent research examining how areas of the brain control pressure inside the eye to cause the development and progression of glaucoma, and also collaborates on multiple projects with researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology and externally.

“It was really by accident that I ended up becoming a clinician-scientist,” Dr. Samuels says. “I applied to medical school thinking that I just wanted to be an MD, but I also applied to the neuroscience PhD program separately as a backup plan. It wasn’t until after I was accepted to both that I learned there was a combined program. It was a lucky accident, because I truly enjoy my career as a clinician-scientist. Hopefully one day the discoveries that are being made in my lab or through one of my collaborations will allow me to say that I helped patients with glaucoma or other blinding diseases throughout the world instead of just one patient at a time in my clinic.”