Dr. Carol Westall

Dr. Carol Westall

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By: Melanie Guenette

As I arrive at Dr. Carol Westall’s office, she is preparing a cup of tea, true to her British roots. There are several bicycle helmets strewn about, along with a couple of pairs of running shoes. Seeing me notice these, she exclaims, “I love Bixi bikes!” Her energy is disarming, and I immediately feel comfortable, much as I did when she interviewed me for admission to the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) almost two years ago.

We sit down to begin our interview, and Westall tells me she studies children who are at increased risk of retinal dysfunction due to type 1 diabetes or side-effects from vigabatrin, a drug used to treat infantile spasms (a form of epilepsy). She employs cutting edge imaging techniques called multi-model adaptive optics, to examine microscopic changes in the retina. “It’s the same technique used to visualize the stars!” she adds, and I can’t help but absorb her enthusiasm. Her laboratory aims to identify the early neurovisual markers that precede detectable vascular dysfunction and the markers of neuronal disease that are predictive of subsequent sight-threatening retinopathy. As she speaks, I realize how strikingly translational her research is in nature. For example, she has the largest database of retinal findings resulting from vigabatrin use in a pediatric cohort, and found reduced risk of retinal toxicity when the drug was used for six months or less. These data were presented to an expert panel, whose favourable vote led to the drug’s approval for infantile spasms by the US Food and Drug Association (FDA).

Westall’s exceptional academic training began at The City University in London, England, where she completed a degree in Optometry. When asked why she chose this field, her answer is simple: “I had vision problems as a child and wanted to learn more.” Shortly after graduating, busy with her practice, Westall felt compelled to shift her focus from the clinical setting to vision science research, something that had interested her throughout her undergraduate training. Thanks to the advice of her mentors in London, Westall soon found herself on a plane to Indiana, USA, where she would complete her Master’s degree in physiological optics. She studied the perceptual effects of abnormal eye movements in a disorder called amblyopia, where vision is impaired in a physically normal eye due to disruption in signal transduction from the retina to the brain. To say she had been bitten by the research bug would be an understatement: Westall went on to complete a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and two post-docs, this time back in the UK.  “After completing my sixth year as a post-doc, it was time to find a real job,” she says, “and a letter from the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) arrived in the mail.”

In 1991, Westall became Director of the Visual Electrophysiology Unit at the HSC, a position she still holds today. She was appointed, a mere month later, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences at the University of Toronto. She was surprised to learn that few of her colleagues were supervising graduate students and that the position of Assistant Professor would not suffice for her own graduate supervision.  Although she hoped to have graduate students, Westall explains that she was very busy with her roles in clinic and the Visual Electrophysiology Unit, which included clinical testing, developing a pediatric database of normal values and supervising resident research projects. “I was constantly learning new skills since my background was not in the clinical assessment of visual electrophysiology; I would not have had the time back then.”

In 1996, Westall began reconsidering graduate supervision. She credits Dr. Brenda Gallie, fellow vision science researcher, with introducing her to the IMS and encouraging her to seek appointment within the department. “She was my guide and mentor,” she adds fondly. Westall had extensive experience supervising students from her post-doctoral days in the UK but was eager to train students in an official capacity within the IMS. She served on several Project Advisory Committees (PACs) before taking on her first official graduate student in 1999; she has since had more than ten students successfully complete degrees under her supervision.

Westall cannot say enough about the quality of the training offered at the IMS, “I like the structure of the program; in Europe students don’t have modules or seminars like those here.” She also adds that as a non-physician, “I feel accepted and appreciated within the administration, something that has not always been the case.” When asked what drives her to do her job, Westall says her students are the main source of her motivation, “I really love watching the evolution of my students. I have the privilege of encouraging their academic growth and seeing them achieve great things.” Westall’s current role as a member of the IMS admissions committee continues to reaffirm her dedication towards students, “I know what it’s like to worry about getting that acceptance letter, for I had pathetic scores in both English and Biology on my GRE!”

In 2000, Westall became a full member of the IMS and has served, since 2009, as one of three graduate coordinators for the department. When asked why she accepted the position, she explains that on several occasions, she had taken on students who had required a change of graduate supervisor. She says the department was, “very open to dialogue,” regarding these students, and that this truly impressed her. For many years, she has been involved in seminars aiming to improve the student-supervisor relationship. She believes this interaction is, “amongst the most important,” for a student and, “crucial to their success within the program and beyond.”

Because the IMS is currently undergoing an external review, I asked Westall about her wish list for the department in the years to come. “I think there is always room for improvement. The main focus should be the way students are supervised; better relationships with supervisors are key to the happiness and productivity of students.” She adds that a critical balance must be achieved in any student-supervisor dynamic: students must be properly supported in all aspects of their research, yet challenged in order to achieve their potential.

In Westall’s opinion, the largest obstacle faced by graduate students involves life after graduate school, “with all the cutbacks in funding, the competition, it is hard to become the next Dr. Whiteside (former IMS student, graduate coordinator and current Dean of Medicine at the University of Toronto)!” Westall’s commitment to her students is obvious to anyone who knows her. When asked what advice she has for graduate students, she quiets for a moment and says, “Believe in yourself. Believe in your strength! You can achieve anything if you remain strong. And always remember to breathe.”