Dr. Gemma Julio is the deputy director of research at the Barraquer Ophthalmology Centre. She joined the Research Department two years ago. A pharmacy graduate, she received her PhD in Medicine from the University of Barcelona, with a thesis entitled “Morphological Study of the Changes on the Corneal Epithelium in a Dry Eye Model”. From 2009 until she joined the Barraquer Ophthalmology Centre, she was the lead researcher at the Eye Surface Laboratory of the Optical and Optometry Department of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia affiliated with the Biomedical Research Unit (Autonomous University of Barcelona and Health Consortium of Terrassa). Her work on pathologies of the anterior and posterior segment of the eye has been published in a range of ophthalmology journals.
What encouraged you to enter the world of research?
I’ve always been interested in logic and the ‘why’ behind things. In addition, I worked as a university lecturer for 20 years and research is one of the pillars of academia. So naturally I became more and more interested in research tasks. I formed a team with colleagues from the eye anatomy and pathology departments and we began to work on topics related to eye surface pathologies and subsequently on retina disorders.
I see your PhD thesis focuses on ophthalmology. What attracted you to this field?
The eye is one of the body's most fascinating yet complex organs. For example, on a functional level, the eye has evolved to allow us to see in very extreme conditions of light yet always protects those structures essential to our eyesight like the retina. Amateur photographers will be familiar with what I’m talking about: Even with a good camera it is sometimes very difficult to capture changes in light, certain details and textures we can effortlessly see with the naked eye.
In addition, the eye must expose its most external tissue to conditions—often adverse and changing—to the environment, in order to be able to detect light. As I worked on my PhD thesis, I began to understand and admire the mechanisms that control and maintain the tear film. This film protects the cornea and conjunctiva from extreme wind, heat and cold and provides ideal conditions for proper cell metabolism.
Describe a typical day in the life of a researcher at the Barraquer Centre?
It’s usually intense and diverse. I carry out two types of tasks specifically: I manage the research department and the coordination of the ongoing clinical projects. My job requires collaboration from every member of the project team (ophthalmologists specialising in the subject of the study, interns, optometrists, etc.) and from my point of view, it’s very rewarding. Although sometimes we have to solve complicated problems that test our professional and personal mettle, research is always a lesson in humility and constant improvement.
You’re also a reviewer for journals such as Cornea, Current Eye Research and the British Journal of Ophthalmology...
That’s right. Working as a reviewer is a way of giving back to the authors who have lent me a hand. The world of scientific publications is very complex and requires extra input, an effort we all must shoulder together.
What are the main lines of your current research?
I’m mainly coordinating clinical studies (with patients). We are undertaking various studies about glaucoma with Dr. Canut as the lead researcher and studies on different types of intraocular lenses headed up by Dr. Barraquer and Dr. Salvador. In addition, we are working on a response to the use of intrastromal corneal rings in keratoconus with Prof. Barraquer and Dr. Lamarca, and we are studying the safety and efficacy of phototherapeautic keratectomy on corneal dystrophy with Dr. Sauvageot.
In terms of studies on the posterior segment of the eye, one area of our research focuses on retina disorders in patients with a corneal prosthesis with Dr. Nadal is the lead researcher, and we are designing two further studies on the analysis of surgical techniques for retina pathologies, with Dr. Nadal and Dr. Abengoechea.
I’d like to point out that every project relies on a team of very efficient and committed interns and optometrists specialised in intraocular lens calculation, like Joaquim Fernández, and in eyesight tests for clinical trials, like Alba Herrero.
Is clinical research in a primarily healthcare-related centre difficult?
High-quality healthcare has always been the primary objective of the Barraquer Ophthalmology Centre. I’d go so far as to say that it’s its lifeblood. However, the Centre has always been committed to research—both clinical and experimental—with a pioneering view ahead of its time that has earned it world-renowned distinctiveness and excellence.
At present, our department performs experimental research based on clinical studies coordinated by Dr. Ralph Michael and various clinical trials coordinated by David Cerdán and Pilar Rodríguez, our newest recruit to the team. We believe that the future of research lies in cross-discipline collaboration, a maxim we aim put into practice throughout each of our projects.
It’s worth highlighting that we strive to carry out our projects with maximum respect and minimum interference in the Centre's healthcare work. I would like to thank all the departments for their work and understanding.
Some of your research projects have come about through Barraquer Foundation initiatives. What does your work do to help the Foundation?
I’d like to think that it provides a clear overview of the methodology required to reach its targets directly concerning the scientific field, information dissemination and public health. I’m enormously proud of the humanitarian spirit of the Barraquer Foundation's past, present and future projects.
With such a demanding job, what do you do to disconnect? What are your hobbies?
My job definitely is demanding, however—as I hope you will see in this interview—it is also a constant challenge with many professional and personal rewards. Even so, it's important to relax at times and disconnect, as you’ve rightly said. I go hiking and cycling and I like reading, going to the cinema and gardening. I’m really fortunate because I also love my job.