The aqueous layer of the tear film is rich in proteins, and is produced and secreted by the acinar cells of the lacrimal gland. Tear proteins maintain the health of the cornea, preserving visual acuity and preventing infection and inflammation. Tear proteins are secreted through the processes of regulated exocytosis and transcytosis in acinar cells, requiring effector proteins that act in response to cues produced by innervating neurons. In studying the fundamental processes involved in tear protein secretion, Dr. Hamm-Alvarez became interested in how these patterns change in the autoimmune disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, which is characterized by extreme dry eye and dry mouth, exploring these questions first in mouse models of disease and then in clinical populations. Identifying novel tear biomarkers unique to Sjögren’s syndrome patients, who typically take 5 years to diagnose, she is now advancing tear diagnostics as point of care for these patients. She has also developed a program in formulation and delivery of immunomodulatory agents utilizing nanotechnology, and her long term goals are to combine nanotherapeutics and tear biomarkers in a treatment and monitoring platform.
Starting as a chemist, and training as a biochemist and cell biologist as a Ph. D. and postdoctoral fellow, respectively, as a faculty member Dr. Hamm-Alvarez has incorporated pharmaceutics, immunology, vision science, mouse genetics/mouse models, nanotechnology, and translational/clinical sciences into her research by design and necessity. She is an academic researcher and entrepreneur while concurrently spending significant time as a research administrator, currently serving as Associate Dean for Basic and Translational Sciences at the USC Keck School of Medicine and Director of Research Development, Southern California Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. She will discuss her scientific growth and diversification in pursuit of research goals, and how she has been able to leverage her personal scientific growth to advance in university research administration.