Professor of Life Sciences
College of Sciences
Nora Caberoy grew up in Barotac Viejo, a small town on the Phillipine island of Iloilo. She played with fishes and tadpoles, chased butterflies, and climbed trees. She explored the different species found in the hills, farmlands and beaches on the island. "My backyard was practically my laboratory," said the professor of life sciences. "I had no concept of biology then but those experiences would shape me to pursue a career in the biological sciences."
After getting her Ph.D. in genetics and cell biology and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, she was attracted to the interdisciplinary research happening in the UNLV School of Life Sciences.
Research Field? My research is on eye diseases. Specifically, I study the retina -- the thin, multilayer, light-sensitive tissue that is found all the way at the back of the eye. The retina contains a special type of neurons called photoreceptors. These cells sense and convert light into electrical signals. The electrical signals are then sent into the brain via the optic nerve for visual processing and creation of an image.
Because the photoreceptors are constantly exposed to light, they become susceptible to photo-oxidation damage. As part of the normal physiological process, every day, about one to two hours after onset of light, the outer tips of the photoreceptors are shed. The shed tips of the photoreceptors are rapidly eaten by specialized cells underneath them. Those cells are called retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells.
The process by which RPE feed on the shed tips of the photoreceptors is called phagocytosis. Disruption of the process of phagocytosis results in accumulation of the shed photoreceptors and other toxic products. This eventually leads to the death of the photoreceptors and other cells of the retina. In my lab, we study the role of RPE phagocytosis in photoreceptor death that leads to retinal dysfunction and then blindness. By identifying factors and pathways associated with damage of the retina, we hope to be able to develop ways to prevent or treat blindness.
What drew you to your profession? I have a very inquisitive mind, if there's a problem, I like to think of a possible solution. At the same time, I think of some alternative hypotheses in case my original theory does not work.
What do you find as the most interesting thing about your field? The scientific field in general is very dynamic. The tremendous wealth of information and discoveries that are generated every single day should keep us all excited. In my field of eye diseases, we exert incredible effort to try to understand the reasons why people go blind and how to either prevent it or restore vision for those who are already blind.
Biggest misconception about your field? People don't pay too much attention to the eye field unless they are the ones afflicted by the disease or they have family members who are suffering from blindness. A lot of people are not aware of the many inherited forms of blindness. On top of that, as we age, we become predisposed to agerelated macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness for people 50 years and older. In the U.S. alone, due to the aging of the US population, the number of AMD-afflicted individuals is expected to reach 3 million by 2020. In addition, we also have some lifestyle diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes that are prevalent in developed countries that increase our risk for developing eyesight problems.
What has surprised you about your field? Prior to working in the eye, I was ignorant as to how debilitating blindness can be. A person would rather lose a limb than lose eyesight. People do not comprehend the complexity of the eye. Organ transplantation has advanced remarkably over the years that we can transplant just about any organ, but not the whole eye. For that, we would need to connect more than 1 million nerve fibers that connect the eye to the brain, and reconstructing those connections is close to impossible at this time.
Having said that, we've heard incredible developments just in recent months of people gaining partial vision from implanted microchips in the retina. That advancement stems from decades of painstaking research understanding retinal cell biology and its associated neural circuitry.
What inspired you to get into your field? I have to admit, I just walked into the field. I was doing bacterial genetics before I migrated into ophthalmology. However, I've always been interested in doing health-related research. When the opportunity came for a postdoctoral position at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute (BPEI), which is the number one eye institute in the country, I jumped into it.
Who was your favorite professor and why? I've been fortunate to have professors/mentors who have unselfishly guided me and went that extra mile to help me navigate my career. My early favorite was my science teacher in high school, Mrs. Grace Amojedo-Pe?as. She was my coach in my investigatory projects, and she really nurtured my interest in science. I remember the numerous times when she would take me home so that we could discuss science and plan our little experiments. Those were simple scientific explorations, but they laid the foundations for my desire to pursue a career in research.
I'm also indebted to Dr. Abigail Hackam from BPEI. She is a great role model and someone who is always there to discuss, listen and give advice. But if there's anyone that I can credit most of my success so far, it's none other than my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Wei Li of BPEI. He saw my potential, nurtured it and gave me opportunities for growth and advancement.
What kind of professor would you like your students to remember you as? I want to be remembered as a mentor and a friend who truly cares, someone who walks that extra mile for her students. What students need to realize is that we sometimes push them, not because we want to give them a hard time, but we see their potential and we want them to achieve or surpass that potential. I have been given a lift in order to get to where I am now, thus I also want to open opportunities and be instrumental to the future success of my students.
What is your proudest moment? Getting the National Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute Pathway to Independence Career Development Award. The award is so competitive that on the average, only one award is given out per grant cycle. More than anything, it validates the potential of my research, and on a personal level, it means that I can be very competitive in my chosen field.
What would people be surprised to know about you? People would be surprised that I have interests other than science, that I am really down-to-earth and a trooper. I write poems. I like to explore nature. I love hiking and I run to keep myself fit. I dabble in fashion designing. I love listening to classical music. I also love watching musicals and plays. I am quite adventurous. I can be stranded on an island with nothing and I know I'll survive.
PC or Mac? In my heart I'm a Mac, but in the past years I've settled for a PC because it's cheaper.
If you could fix one thing in the world what would it be? It sounds clich? but I wish there was no major conflict, no senseless killings or war and we could all live in peace and harmony. And that resources channeled into those efforts are directed instead toward advancing science, technology, medicine, education, and improving the lives of the people of the world.
Who is your hero? My heroes are my parents. Despite the fact that they're both nonprofessionals, they have instilled in me the values of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. They've encouraged me to pursue my passion and believed that I can be successful in my chosen field when sometimes I even doubted myself.