Highlighting Canada’s best and brightest: My interview with Dr. Jiwon Oh

As we continue on the path to finding a cure for MS, it’s important to support our network of hardworking and talented MS researchers here in Canada. The MS Society is always thinking of new ways to stimulate interest in MS research among young people, and provide them with the tools they need to conduct groundbreaking studies and collaborate with other experts in the field. One great example that comes to mind is the MS Society of Canada’s endMS Transitional Career Development (TCD) award, which was awarded to Dr. Jiwon Oh in 2012. The TCD award is intended to fund promising individuals who are beginning their careers as independent researchers and to encourage them to either continue or begin pursuing work in MS here in our great country.

Dr. Oh is a researcher and neurologist who is extremely dedicated to the field of MS, and who has done exciting work so far in her career. With support from the TCD award, Dr. Oh began a faculty position at the University of Toronto, having previously completed her PhD and clinical fellowship at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Along with being an assistant professor at U of T, Dr. Oh works at St. Michael’s hospital where she splits her time between seeing patients in the MS clinic and doing exciting MS research using a sophisticated imaging procedure called optical coherence tomography through collaborations with John Hopkins University.

Dr. Jiwon Oh

Photo credit: Jiwon Oh

I had the chance to speak with Dr. Oh about her research involving optical coherence tomography and what it’s like balancing clinical work with research. Here is what she shared with me.

Can you explain what optical coherence tomography (OCT) is?

It’s a non-invasive ultrasound technique that looks at the back of the eye. It measures specific layers within the retina, which is very useful because we know that the retina is commonly affected in MS. A number of studies have come out that show that these retinal layers not only are linked to altered visual function in MS but also seem to reflect the state of disease in the entire central nervous system. It seems that the retina acts as a window into better understanding MS as a whole and not only MS that is within the eye.

How do we differentiate between NMO (neuromyelitis optica) and MS when looking at the layers of the eye?

Neuromyelitis optica is a disease that is similar to MS because it involves myelin loss. However, instead of affecting the spinal cord and brain, NMO is a disease of the spinal cord and optic nerve, which is the nerve connecting the eyes to the brain. There are many characteristics that differentiate MS from NMO, such as how the diseases appear on MRI. We have shown that damage to the layers in the eye is much more severe with one attack of NMO, as opposed to an attack of MS. There is a clear difference in how much tissue is lost after an NMO attack that involves the optic nerve, as opposed to an MS attack that involves the optic nerve.

How long have you been involved with this type of procedure and what led you to this avenue of research?

Actually my field of work is mainly in advanced MRI research but researchers in part of our lab at Hopkins are the true experts in OCT. As a result, I’ve been peripherally involved in many of these projects for about three years. Specifically, the idea for this study is to identify links between the optic nerve and the spinal cord, which no group has yet looked at yet. This work can obtain important information on spinal cord dysfunction in MS, which will help clarify mechanisms of how lesions cause symptoms such as mobility impairment.

How is it like balancing your clinical duties with the research side?

I think the balance is very important. The best researchers are ones that are very familiar with the field clinically. There’s so many things that you learn just from seeing patients every day so I think it’s an essential part of being an effective clinical researcher. But it is very difficult to multitask and you’re often juggling many things. It’s a challenge, but I’m striving to try to find the right balance as I transition into my faculty position. I know that I will continue to pursue both paths- be a clinician and a researcher. In the end, this is why I’m a doctor. As much as the field of research is exciting, I think the most exciting part of it is being able to tell patients about it and come up with things that potentially can make a difference to them.

How has the TCD [Transitional Career Development Award] helped in that transitional period for you?

It’s really been career changing. Recently I was asked what the greatest career accomplishment I’ve had is and I can honestly say it was receiving that award. It’s made it possible for me to decide how much research I would like to do and that is not always the case for everyone. Receiving support from the TCD enabled me to focus my time in specific areas of research that I was most interested in, like MRI. It really set the foundation for the rest of my career.

Categories Research

National vice-president, research, past MS researcher, and PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from University of Ottawa. Leads the MS Society's research program to find the cure for MS and improve the quality of life for people affected by the disease.

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