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Researcher has an eye for translating innovation into practice

Helen Adams | MUSC News Center | January 22, 2016

Photos by Sarah Pack

Small black plaques celebrate patents linked with MUSC, while an adjoining fountain is inscribed with the words "discovering," "understanding" and "healing." 

Even in a room filled with of some of the smarter people around, Barb Rohrer, Ph.D., stood out. The tall, lean researcher is a prolific inventor in the field of age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, with more than 20 patents and three start-up companies to her credit.

In other words, she was the perfect person to serve as keynote speaker at an event celebrating innovation at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“What does it take to innovate?” Rohrer asked the audience of medical doctors and researchers gathered for an Imagine 2020 scientific discoveries celebration, where more than 20 inventors were inducted into the MUSC chapter of the National Academy of Inventors. It was an important question for an institution that prizes innovation. 

In Rohrer’s experience, two factors have been key: serendipity and timing. 

Dr. Barb Rohrer 
Dr. Barb Rohrer is the SmartState Endowed Chair in Gene and Pharmaceutical Treatment of Retinal Degenerative Diseases. 

“Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a beneficial way,” Rohrer said, citing examples from her own work. In one case, a dinner invitation led to an important discussion about ways to expand the life span of neurons. In another, a speech to a foundation that advocates for blind people led to an important funding connection for her work. “How can we cultivate the art of serendipity at MUSC?” 

Timing has also paid off for Rohrer. An idea for research involving macular degeneration went unfunded one year, she told the crowd, but thanks to publications that sparked new interest in her area, the next year, funding came easily. 

Rohrer’s speech was part of a larger celebration that not only included the induction ceremony into the MUSC chapter of the NAII but also highlighted a new fountain and brick wall near the main hospital. The wall is covered with black plaques representing patents linked with MUSC.

One wall (left) is already filled with patent plaques.  

Michael Rusnak, executive director of the MUSC Foundation for Research Development, said the event is part of an effort to change the culture at MUSC. “It’s no longer teach, get grants and tenure,” Rusnak said. “It’s about applied and innovative research that will get us more attention in the area of funding and also keep the brightest and best to stay around. 

“We need more engagement with our community to let them know this is all happening so they can get involved. MUSC is and can be a better transformational institution for health care, for higher learning and for new ideas, a brand that can shape Charleston for the better, above and beyond what it is today.”

Rohrer said MUSC is already headed in that direction, noting that the world’s largest organization for the advancement of technology recently ranked MUSC fourth in the country in its Patent Power list.

“In today’s research and education funding climate, we need to be innovative and creative. MUSC has been forward thinking in that respect, generating more and more interest and more and more financial support through innovation and industry links.”

She left the audience with these words: “Let me close by challenging you all to cultivate the art of serendipity at MUSC – the time is right!”



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