Dr. Tara Alvarez is Professor of Bio-Medical Engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology and Chief Scientific Officer at OculoMotor Technologies. She was awarded her B.S. in Electrical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at Bell Labs before joining the faculty at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She has received numerous awards and honors in her career, including an NSF Career Award, the Founding Members Award for Science from the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association, an Edison Patent Award, the NJIT Excellence in Research Award, and Augmented World Expo’s Auggie Awards for Women XR Laureate and for Most Innovative Breakthrough. She has also been named an Outstanding Woman Scientist of NJ, a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry, and a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. In this interview, Tara shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:39)
In her free time, Tara loves spending time with her kids, doing renovation projects at home, cooking, and gardening.
The Scientific Side (3:21)
Tara studies a condition called convergence insufficiency. When we look at something in our environment, our eyes move to converge our focus on a particular point in space, and we have to sustain this convergence in order to do things like reading. For about 5% of people, reading for more than about 15 minutes may lead to blurred vision, double vision, headaches, eye stress/strain, a sensation that the words in view are floating, and a need to re-read lines of text multiple times. This can have major impacts on a person’s education and/or career. About half of people with persistent symptoms after concussion experience convergence insufficiency as well. Tara is working to better understand what is happening in this condition and how the brain changes during visual therapy, resulting in reduced symptoms.
A Dose of Motivation (6:27)
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:41)
Tara had exposure to research at an early age because her father had a PhD in mechanical engineering. She grew up asking questions about how things work and why they work this way, and her family and teachers nurtured her curiosity. While she considered becoming a physical therapist or a pediatrician early on, her interests shifted towards biomedical engineering over time. Tara found her way to working on the visual system somewhat serendipitously. A cold email to an optometrist (Dr. Mitchell Scheiman) whose work she had been reading led to a fruitful collaboration that has lasted more than a decade. Tara’s desire to apply findings from her research to help people led her to take part in a start-up company called OculoMotor Technologies. There, she is leveraging virtual reality to make video games using eye movement-based controls to provide more engaging, personalized therapy for people with vision problems like convergence insufficiency.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:54)
In the early stages of her career, Tara frequently questioned whether she was meant to be a researcher. She had seven grant applications for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rejected before one of her grants was finally funded. This was frustrating, but it was also an important learning experience. Tara realized that it is common for faculty to have grant applications rejected, and she learned to think about feedback from grant reviewers as constructive criticism provided to help her grow and become a better scientist. The proposal that was eventually funded was so much better than her initial proposals, and looking back, Tara can say with certainty that she loves her career.
A Shining Success! (20:59)
There have been a handful of especially meaningful scientific victories that Tara has enjoyed celebrating. When one of her NIH grant proposals finally got funded, it was scored in the top 5% of applications that cycle. This was a big win for Tara, and it felt really validating after a string of failed applications. Tara was also selected to receive the Excellence in Research Award from NJIT. This was a meaningful success not only because her work was being recognized, but because her daughter was able to come up to the podium with her to accept the award. In addition, their company won an IEEE Auggie Award for Most Innovative Breakthrough. Beyond these major successes, Tara has received numerous letters from parents and students about how her work has led to improvements in their symptoms that prevented them from reading for longer periods of time, allowing them to go on to successful careers. These letters are incredibly motivating and rewarding.
Book Recommendations (23:19)
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson; Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg; Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
Most Treasured Travel (24:29)
Tara has had opportunities to present her work and speak with scientists across the United States and all over the world. It has been amazing to see firsthand how scientists do things, how they approach life, and how they solve problems in different places and different cultures. One of her favorite places to visit in the world is Paris. She worked with the ophthalmic lens company Essilor International there for 15 years on a project that aimed to understand why some people adapt well to progressive additive lenses (bifocal glasses without the line), while others do not. While in Paris, Tara enjoyed listening to the choir at the Sacré-Cœur on Sundays, listening to music and watching the fountains at the Palace of Versailles, and exploring the delicious cuisine and wine at local restaurants.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (27:28)
When Tara visits new places to give scientific presentations, she always likes to learn more about the people there. She often asks about their favorite restaurants, pastimes, and books to get to know more about them. Tara has found that many scientists are very creative people, and there is a lot of overlap with musicians and artists. She herself is a fan of impressionist art, and she enjoys visiting art museums. In her lab, Tara and her team like to spend time together outside of the lab doing different activities like escape rooms and going out to restaurants where they can get to know each other’s interests outside of science.
Advice For Us All (34:02)
Find out what you like doing most, and try to make a career out of it. Your interests may change over time, and you can change your career at any stage of your life. Don’t be afraid to make a change, reinvent yourself, or challenge yourself with something new. Also, it is important for the public to realize that not all vision conditions are regularly screened for. Schools typically do screenings for visual acuity, but they don’t usually screen for convergence insufficiency. If you or someone you know struggles to read for 15-20 minutes and has visual symptoms, reach out to an eye care professional and tell them about these symptoms. This will prompt them to test other aspects of your vision, and being diagnosed will allow you to get treated. In most cases, vision therapy is successful in treating symptoms of convergence insufficiency.
Tara and her colleagues are making a difference in the treatment of vision function in brain injury patients, especially children with concussion. In particular, she is establishing new clinical standards for treating patients with vision dysfunction after brain injury, and she is working with five major children’s hospitals to assess the effectiveness of her system. This will result in broader impact to further understand what is different in patients with convergence insufficiency (CI) and how the brain changes post-vision therapy. Her system is more cost-effective and can be used in both home and clinic settings, which will revolutionize the way in which people are diagnosed and treated. The mission of her research is to understand the underlying neural mechanisms that lead to a sustained reduction in visual symptoms and to take that knowledge, integrated with technology, to develop new diagnostic and therapeutic interventions that can be used for personalized point-of-care. She and her team are designing innovative diagnostic and therapeutic interventions with NJIT’s Game Design program and the startup company OculoMotor Technologies. Visit Tara’s lab website to learn more.