C. Kathleen Dorey, Ph.D., has plenty to keep her busy. When the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine professor is not giving a lecture or acting as a small group facilitator, she is focused on research.
“The wonderful thing about the sciences is that there is always a puzzle,” said Dorey. “It is like the best detective novel and you write it as you go. There are clues scattered all throughout the literature. You can guess ‘I think John did it in the library with a candlestick.’ But the difference between being a detective and a research scientist is that the research scientist can prove it was John in the library with a candlestick.”
Dorey has spent a large part of her research career studying age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The condition is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans over the age of 60. AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye that allows people to see fine detail. It causes a loss of central vision, which is needed to see items clearly and is critical for activities such as reading and driving.
“It has been exciting to be part of something that you feel is going to lead to improvements,” reflected Dorey. “Looking at the big picture, my contribution has been small, but it was part of what got the ball rolling in the field. It is very gratifying to know that there is a treatment now. I did not develop it, but just being part of the whole process that leads to improvements in people’s lives – it will hook you.”
In addition to studying AMD, Dorey holds a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the role of inflammation in angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is a natural process in the body for healing and reproduction, but when it does not function normally, it can cause health problems such as cancer, age-related blindness, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, among other health-related issues.
In addition to her own research projects, Dorey also finds time to review articles for scientific journals. She believes it is a responsibility of all researchers.
At the conclusion of an experiment, scientists seeking to publish their findings may send their research to a journal. This includes a compilation of data, an explanation of the results of the research, and information on how this study advances a particular field. The editor of the journal reviews the report and determines if it is of interest to the publication. If the editor believes the report fits the journal, it moves onto a reviewing editor who researches experts in the field and contacts several to ask them to review the report.
Dorey says the reviewer’s responsibility is to make sure that the author(s) has followed proper procedure, correctly interpreted the results, and clearly communicated the findings. “If people do not do their job reviewing, then as a reader, you get a paper that looks like it may be important, but you find flaws,” Dorey explained. “But if the paper has been properly reviewed, it is much stronger.”
Recently, the journal Current Eye Research honored Dorey for her efforts, naming her the 2010 Reviewer of the Year. Dorey has reviewed more than 30 articles for the publication in the last two years. She says that kind of commitment is important to the scientific community. “All of us publish. We all rely on the system. It is part of your job to paddle the boat too. Scientists weigh the time commitment and their sense of responsibility to the community. When the latter is well developed, even the busiest person will decide to review a set number of papers each month.”
In addition to reviewing papers, Dorey says scientists make a much larger time commitment when selected to review NIH grants. “When you review NIH grants, you are sent a huge box that is filled with grants and each one may be close to 100 pages long. It can take a month to carefully read and evaluate everything in your assigned grants.” Dorey added, “You have to write summaries of each to report in committee. It is a very onerous task.” The institute asks scientists who have received an NIH grant to serve in this capacity.
Grants like those awarded by the NIH are important not only to a scientist’s research, but also to their well-being. “Most researchers in the United States, including myself for almost 20 years, are supported by grants,” said Dorey. Most basic scientists do not get a salary from the institution where they work. Instead, they are paid by the grants they receive. Dorey explained that in her previous positions, she tried to have two grants that overlapped at the same time to ensure she was always bringing in money to support herself and her staff. In addition, she taught a full faculty load.
Teaching, however, is something Dorey is happy to do. “It is not about the preparation of lectures or being in front of a classroom,” Dorey said. “Sometimes you are teaching and a student asks you a question that seems to be out of left field. Then suddenly you realize there is another aspect you had not thought about. It is a learning process for the teacher too. That is what I find so invigorating.”
Dorey is highly involved as a faculty member at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. She has led many discussions, but says her time serving as a facilitator of small groups of students who study patient cases using a problem-based learning format, has been the most rewarding. “There is a lot more dialogue in a small group. Everyone feels empowered to contribute to the discussion. When there are 40 students in a room, however, those who have a question may not feel comfortable speaking up, or to say ‘I thought there was a different reason.'”
A highlight in the classroom this year was a series of videos Dorey was able to share with the charter class. “One of the things students have always struggled with when I have taught embryology on other campuses was an ability to understand the development of the heart.” Dorey says she worked with her brother-in-law, who is an artist, to create two videos on heart development. “It was exciting for me to see how well the students got it with the different approach. Now, the students want more.”
Dorey will also work one-on-one with a student in her lab studying how the immune system is altered in inflammatory diseases, and how it changes during treatment. This study focuses on rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Both are considered chronic inflammatory diseases, wherein activation of the immune system results in damage to the joints or bowel, respectively. Other common autoimmune diseases include juvenile diabetes and lupus. Charter class student Andrew Feczko has decided to work with Dorey on his research project, a requirement of the curriculum. "I chose to work with Dr. Dorey partly because of my interest in the pathogenesis and treatment of autoimmune disease,” said Feczko. “More importantly, however, was the chance to work with an investigator of Dr. Dorey's caliber and experience who was interested not only in publication, but also in being a research mentor and colleague as part of the process."
Despite some of the challenges scientists face, Dorey is glad she chose the field. “I think research is a fabulous career,” Dorey said. “There are lots of long, frustrating days when you can not figure out where to go, but ultimately, you are solving a mystery. And that is really fun.”