Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Carol Westall

Photo of Dr Carol Westall
Dr. Carol Westall

Dr. Carol Westall, PhD, B.Sc (Optom)

  • Senior Associate Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Director, Visual Electrophysiology Unit
  • Vision Scientist, Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences
  • Professor, Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences and Member Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I am from the United Kingdom and I did my undergraduate degree there. I completed my Masters in the United States at Indiana University and my PhD at the University of California (Berkeley). I returned to the UK and completed my post-doctoral studies in Cardiff, Wales. In 1991, I got a letter from SickKids notifying me that the position of Director of Visual Electrophysiology was available and I have been here ever since.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research is focused on the early markers of disease in the visual system. Mainly, I am looking at retinal disease, specifically diseases that if not detected early, might cause severe visual deficiencies.

One of my studies is looking at the visual side-effects of a drug that’s used to help treat seizures in a disease called infantile spasms, a form of epilepsy. The drug is good at reducing the number of seizures but also causes a visual toxicity which impacts on the retina of the eye. Many studies have found out how to record this visual system toxicity in adults however, it’s not known how to adequately describe the toxicity in infants. This is a very different population because children at three to four months of age are still developing. Their visual system and their brain are developing and so in studying all the developments we can try to find out if something is going wrong in a particular child. To do this we’ve been working very closely with neurology as well as ophthalmology. The standard protocol now is that we test every child that goes on this drug and we test a child before, during and after drug treatments.

In using one of my markers, the electroretinogram, we’ve been able to find out that some children do show the retinol toxicity. We’ve found some interesting things. For example, if the drug is used for six months or less, it’s far less likely to cause a visual toxicity. Our results have been quite exciting showing that some children get toxicity, while others don’t. This study used the biggest group in the world following these children. When we began the study, the drug had not been passed by the Food and Drug Association (FDA) in the United States. Based on the data from our lab the drug has been approved for use. One of the most exciting parts of my career was going and defended my data to the FDA.

This research falls in very nicely with the Centre for Investigation of Neuroplasticity and Developmental Disorders (CNDD). This is a collaborative group of scientists at SickKids headed by Dr. Carter Snead. It is a new centre that includes a new neuro-retinal lab and labs for higher brain functioning. The centre is funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and includes structural and functional research, imaging from the retina to the brain, psychological assessments and animal studies.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I’m going to choose David Hubel and his colleague Torsten Wiesel. They did some of the very early measures of the structure and architecture of the visual brain. The team won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
Again, I’m going to say David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel for mapping out the visual pathways from the retina through the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), to the visual cortex and through to the association cortex. The discoveries made by this team are still quoted today. They worked out how the visual system is processed by streams which start in the retina and follow on streams in the visual cortex and also how different disease types may affect just one stream or another. This is work dates back to the 1950’s and 1960s but it is still crucial in so much of vision development.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy walking, cycling, spending time with friends and family and travelling. My partner and I have friends in England and in the Netherlands and I love visiting.

6. Why science?
At first I wanted to be an eye doctor. I went to optometry school and became a practicing optometrist. Throughout my training, I became more and more interested in vision science. I started in practice and then after some thought decided that I really wanted to pursue my interest in vision science. I contacted some of my lecturers in London and we talked about the options of further education. I moved from a clinical position to research and science.

7. Why SickKids?
Well, initially, it was because the notice of a job landed on my desk when I was in Wales. But this is a fabulous place. I am in a very supportive environment with huge clinical populations. My interest lies in clinical research and at SickKids I have the opportunity to follow visual system illnesses in the child. My research can therefore translate directly to those doing drug and treatment trials. I love that I have a clinical lab as well as a research team. The research team is outstanding and we have one of the top paediatric visual electrophysiology units in the world. I have a superb clinic team as well. In the department of ophthalmology there is my lab and Dr. Agnes Wong’s lab and together we form the Neuro-Vision research team. The collaboration and teamwork is fabulous and there are great opportunities for working together in a supportive environment. The structure of SickKids has been very beneficial for my clinical and my research work.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Some of my research looks at children with Type 1 diabetes and we have been investigating early markers of disease to the retina which is called diabetic retinopathy. There are two different thoughts around the cause of this retinopathy. One is that this is a vascular disease and it’s the blood vessels that are affected resulting in hemorrhages and possibly blindness. The other school of thought is that it is more of a neuronal problem, meaning it is the nerves that are affected. There are various hypotheses around certain cells in the retina that might be affected and that might be the first stage that results in changes to the blood vessels. Through retinal imaging, my lab can see the blood vessels in great detail. We are going to be recruiting children with diabetes and trying to work out where diabetic retinopathy starts, whether it is the nerves or the blood vessels. This research will be essential for working out the appropriate treatments for this blinding disorder of diabetic retinopathy.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am finishing up a book by Amy Tan called Saving Fish from Drowning. The book is incredible and provides insight into the mystiques of chinese and burmese life, culture and struggles. It is based around a group of Americans on a trip to China and is an incredible exploration of life, death and relationships.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Students should come in with an excitement about science and an idea of the area where they want to work. They need to find a good and a happy lab and be able to know that there is a supervisor who will be available to mentor them. Good relationships with other students and with the supervisor are very important. It is important to follow your dreams with guidance.

11. What will the new Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
The Research & Learning Tower is going to be an incredible establishment. It will enhance collaboration with my research program, across programs and with graduate students. Being in closer proximity to one another will encourage people to work together even more.

November 2010

View scientific profile »»