Leadership Transition in the Department of Ophthalmology

September 9, 2021

To:Penn Medicine Community

From:J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean, Perelman School of Medicine

Kevin B. Mahoney, Chief Executive Officer, University of Pennsylvania Health System

Re: Leadership Transition in the Department of Ophthalmology

It is with tremendous gratitude that we write today to inform you of an upcoming leadership transition in the Department of Ophthalmology.  After twelve years of impactful leadership, Dr. Joan O'Brien, Harold G. Scheie-Nina C. Mackall Research Professor of Ophthalmology, will be stepping down as Chair effective June 30, 2022, to assume new roles as the Inaugural Director of the Penn Medicine Center for Advanced Glaucoma Genetics Research and Chair Emeritus of Ophthalmology.

Dr. O'Brien's tenure as Chair has been highly successful. Under her leadership, the Department has expanded the breadth and depth of its impact across all mission areas. The Department's $104M in research funding over the past five years ranked second in the country – including 38 NIH grants totaling nearly $15 million last year. The residency program has trained many academic leaders, with research output per alumnus in the top 1% nationwide.  Clinically, the Scheie Eye Institute has grown to offer highly personalized care in seventeen ophthalmic sub-specialties, providing cutting-edge therapies and surgical treatments to patients. 

Dr. O'Brien has greatly expanded the size of the faculty (from 24 in 2010 to 66 in 2021), recruiting the top physician-scientists in the nation and mentoring and developing the next generation of leaders. The vision science community at Penn, which includes 112 vision scientists and ophthalmologists across many schools and departments, is now one of the largest in the nation. Dr. O'Brien also significantly increased the Department's philanthropic base, having raised nearly $40M during her tenure. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration announced the historic approval of the first gene therapy for an inherited type of blindness developed by Penn faculty members. This treatment delivers a corrected gene (RPE65) to the retina, restoring visual function in patients. Other Centers have also been successful under Dr. O'Brien's leadership, including the Center for Preventative Ophthalmology & Biostatistics (CPOB), Scheie Image Reading Center, and the Penn Dry Eye & Ocular Surface Center producing high-impact published research and attracting patients from across the nation.

In addition to her many accomplishments as Chair, Dr. O'Brien is an acclaimed ocular oncologist and internationally renowned ocular genetics researcher. Author of more than 200 publications, Dr. O'Brien is the PI of the Primary Open-Angle African American Glaucoma Genetics (POAAGG) study, which investigates the genetic architecture of glaucoma in the over-affected and understudied African ancestry population. This study, which received $11.25M in funding from the National Eye Institute in 2014 and a recent renewal of $6.6M until 2026, has enrolled more than 10,200 individuals from the Philadelphia region. The long-term goals of the study are to develop better screening methodologies and personalized treatment approaches for this blinding disease, and to investigate the pathophysiology of other diseases that disproportionately impact individuals of African-ancestry. In her new role as Center Director, she will focus on these and additional research areas and will collaborate broadly with faculty interested in exploring other diseases that are understudied in this population.

Dr. O'Brien's career accomplishments have been widely recognized by her peers.  Among her many honors, she received the USC Keck School of Medicine Faculty Laureate Award; Frederick C. Cordes Eye Society Samuel J. Kimura Award for Outstanding Resident Teaching; Rabb-Venable Ophthalmology Award; Women in Ophthalmology Suzanne Veronneau-Troutman Award; and the American Society of Retina Specialists (ASRS) Retina Research Foundation's Gertrude D. Pyron Award for Lifetime Research Achievement. Dr. O'Brien was also elected to the American Ophthalmological Honor Society and the National Academy of Medicine.

Dr. O'Brien obtained her medical degree at Dartmouth Medical School and completed an internship in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, followed by postdoctoral fellowships in immunology at Harvard Medical School and in molecular ophthalmic pathology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Whitehead Institute at MIT. She subsequently completed an ophthalmology residency at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and an ocular oncology fellowship at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), where she remained on the faculty as Vice Chair of Medical Student Education. At the time of her appointment, Dr. O'Brien was one of three female Ophthalmology Chairs out of 138 departments in the country, and she has dedicated her career to the mentoring and development of women and minorities in science and in medicine.  

We will convene a search committee, which Dr. Frances Jensen has graciously agreed to chair, in the coming weeks to seek the next Chair of Ophthalmology.

Please join us in both thanking Dr. O'Brien for leadership, dedication and many accomplishments as Department Chair and congratulating her on her appointment as Inaugural Director of the Penn Medicine Center for Advanced Glaucoma Genetics Research, where she undoubtedly will continue to have enormous impact here at Penn and internationally.