The Ophthalmologist Power List 2023

19 Dec 2023

For the third consecutive year, we congratulate Professor Stephanie Watson OAM for being recognised in The Ophthalmologist Power List 2023.

The Ophthalmologist Power List 2023 highlights the excellence and impact of the most influential and inspirational people in ophthalmology.

Over the past decade The Ophthalmologist Power List has become a truly global event, championing leaders and innovators who have shaped the field, several of whom call Australia home.

Professor Watson is Head of the Corneal Unit at Sydney Eye Hospital as well as Head of the Corneal Research Group at The University of Sydney. Here we learn more about what drives her pursuit of excellence in ophthalmology.

Q. Why did you decide to pursue ophthalmology?

A. As a medical student, I decided to pursue a career in ophthalmology. I was fortunate to gain a scholarship to visit Kikuyu Eye clinic in Kenya. There, I found many patients in need of eye care and surgery. Although the available treatments were limited, procedures such as cataract surgery were able to restore sight and had a profoundly positive impact on patient’s lives. There were also many patients with corneal blindness in need of solutions. I was also awarded a scholarship to spend time studying neurology with Professor Newsom-Davis at Oxford University, here I saw the impact that research had on medicine – it was able to improve patient outcomes on a large scale. As a result of these experiences, on completing my ophthalmology training, I chose a career as a clinician scientist working in the field of cornea and external disease.

Q. Is there a particular tool, technological advance, or instrument you would not have been able to live without over the past 10 years?

 A. Access to high quality data is a key tool that has been invaluable over the past 10 years. For example, the Save Sight Keratoconus and Dry Eye Registries, which I lead, have been able to collect data from everyday clinical practice which has enabled clinicians to benchmark their practice and understand disease natural history and treatment outcomes. In my laboratory studies, the ability to analyse outputs in real-time and in detail, such as with in vivo cellular imaging, has generated high-quality data that has enabled the discovery of new knowledge. More recently, high-quality data has been used to develop artificial intelligence for clinical and research applications; this is revolutionising how we approach patient care and research methodologies.

Q. What would you like to see change in ophthalmology and your area of specialisation over the next 10 years – and why?

A. Over the next 10 years, I would like to see more effective and safer treatments for patients suffering corneal blindness. Globally, corneal blindness remains a significant cause of vision impairment and vision loss that affects all ages. Corneal trauma is considered a "silent epidemic" and infection still leaves patients without sight due to corneal scarring. There are some treatments but few cures for these corneal diseases and access to available therapies is not universal. Many treatments also may fail over time. Regenerative medicine holds the promise of cures for corneal diseases. The challenge is now to develop curative therapies with regenerative medicine that can be accessed by all and restore vision for life. Moreover, if we can find ways to prevent common causes of corneal blindness, such as by addressing trauma and infection, sight could also be saved across the globe.
Professor Stephanie Watson

Q. Do you have any personal missions for the next 10 years?

A. My research vision is to significantly improve the lives of patients with corneal disease through developing novel therapies as well as ensuring that available therapies are effective and safe. To fulfil this vision, I plan to lead a laboratory research unit to develop new therapies for corneal disease, bring world-first corneal therapies to the clinic via leading clinical trials, and use analysed registry data to evaluate treatment outcomes in the real-world. This approach will create a pathway that will enable future corneal therapies to reach the clinic and for their outcomes to be assessed in the real-world to advance patient outcomes. 

My personal mission is to enable advances in eye care through training and mentoring the next generation of eye experts – clinicians and researchers. In doing this, another mission is to create and promote workplaces able to support and nurture a diverse workforce. Advantages of diverse next generation eye experts include greater innovation, new perspectives, and the ability to draw from a wider talent pool that will benefit patients and the health care system by improving the outcomes from research and eyecare.

Q. How can donations to the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation help further excellence in eye care for Australians?

A. Eye research in Australia is generally underfunded yet impaired vision and eye health has a multiplier effect of three times on the physical and social impacts of disease.

My team’s research on corneal infection was supported by the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation from 2014 to 2017. This work resulted in one of the top downloaded papers in the journal Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology in 2022. The paper, “Infectious keratitis: A review”, included key findings from our work on corneal infection in Australia and has been downloaded close to 6,000 times. In this way the Foundation’s funding has been able to inform clinicians and researchers across the planet to enable improvements in patient care.

Importantly, the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation supported the careers of my researchers during this period. Two of the paper’s co-authors, Dr Maria Cabrera Aguas and Dr Pauline Khoo, have now graduated with PhDs from The University of Sydney.

The research supported by the Foundation has furthered excellence in eye care for Australians by providing knowledge on corneal infection to assist diagnosis and management and critically understand antimicrobial resistance and trained researchers who are now pursuing careers in eye research.