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Behind the Scenes at SSI: the Sydney Eye Podcast with Dr Maria Cabrera Aguas

Get to know the SSI researcher behind the new eye health podcast

Dr Maria Cabrera-Aguas, a researcher at the University of Sydney, Save Sight Institute, explores topics related to eye health and answers some common questions about eye conditions in her new podcast. 

What is your background and how did you come to pursue your research at SSI?

I was diagnosed with amblyopia at the age of 8. Going through a strict eye-patching therapy on the affected eye, my eyesight improved within a year. This experience inspired me to study medicine with a deep interest in ophthalmology and in vision science. I moved from my native Colombia to Australia and after finalising a Master of International Public Health, I pursued a master in research at the SSI under the supervision of Prof Stephanie Watson in 2014 which I converted to a doctorate in 2016.

What is your research area?

My research with the Corneal Research Group is in the epidemiology of corneal infections. The cornea is the clear layer in front of the eye. We have also established an antimicrobial resistance surveillance program in bacterial corneal infections and developed treatment guidelines for bacterial and herpes simplex virus corneal infection. In the last year, I have also started a project in educating optometrists and ophthalmologists in ocular stem cell therapies and more recently another project in expanding a dry eye registry to monitor patient clinical outcomes.

What inspired you to create the Sydney Eye Podcast?

During my doctorate, I came across articles reporting that 30% to 45% of patients with eye conditions are not receiving care, and 20% to 25% receive unnecessary or potentially harmful care. This data struck me as I was developing treatment guidelines for herpes simplex virus corneal infection in response to the inconsistent antiviral therapy prescribed in hospitals. 

I decided to acquire science communication skills to engage with the community and health professionals successfully. I believe that clinical research should also focus on communicating results and recommendations from the studies to the community and health professionals. I applied to the 2020 ARVO Science Communication Fellowship after talking to previous fellows from the University of Sydney. ARVO is the largest association of researchers in vision science and ophthalmology in the world with more than 10,000 members.

For the outreach activity, I created the Sydney Eye Podcast. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not organise any face-to-face meeting to share my research; therefore, I opted for a new way to communicate my message to communities with eye conditions.

What issues does this podcast explore?

The podcast explores corneal diseases: what they are, what signs and symptoms patients may have, how they are diagnosed by the clinician, potential treatments and how to prevent them. We also provide updates on innovative technology for corneal surgery and research covering patient-reported outcomes for keratoconus and dry eye disease.

Who do you hope to reach with the Sydney Eye Podcast?

I hope to primarily reach patients with eye conditions, or their carers and family members. I also hope to reach eye health professionals who can refer my podcast to their patients.

two women smiling

Dr Pauline Khoo and Dr Maria Cabrera-Aguas

Have you met any challenges in creating the podcast?

Yes, of course! Firstly, I did not know anything about podcasting when I delved into this project. I learned how to prepare an interview, face the fear of interviewing someone, editing the podcast and promoting it. The biggest challenge was promoting the podcast. I thought social media and mailing lists would snowball into a larger audience. However, it has taken time to understand the algorithms on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms to effectively reach my target listeners. It is an endless job but gratifying when people tell me they have learned something new about eye health. 

What is the best feedback you have received?

I have received many positive reviews and comments. Of particular note, someone commended the podcast for its superb attention to detail and explanation of medical terms, especially given the scope of the project. Hearing that listeners are excited to hear about future topics truly inspires me! 

Are you able to tell us about any upcoming guests?

Dr Pauline Khoo, a researcher from Save Sight Institute, joins us in the seventh episode to talk about the dry eye registry. This episode elaborates on content from episode six, which explored dry eye disease and the link to breast cancer. The dry eye registry is a clinician managed web-based data collection tool to track and analyse the outcomes of treatments for dry eye disease, delivering benefits to patients, doctors, governments, and other stakeholders. This project is led by Prof Stephanie Watson in collaboration with optometrists and ophthalmologists from Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France and Germany. 

What’s the number one reason people should tune in to Sydney Eye Podcast?

People should tune in to the Sydney Eye podcast to learn more about eye conditions: what they are, how to diagnose them, how to prevent them, and the latest research. While these topics may seem most relevant to people with existing eye conditions, changes in eye health can happen at any time! We offer tips to prevent the most common corneal infections, which can spring from everyday routines such as wearing contact lenses. 

Dr Maria Cabrera-Aguas

Research Associate
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