Development & Alumni Relations Office 


13 April 2021

In the latest of our Meet the Researcher profiles, we talk to Dr David Wright, recently appointed Belfast Association for the Blind Lecturer in Ophthalmic Data Science, in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences (MDBS) at Queen’s.

Ophthalmology – the branch of medicine concerned with the study and treatment of disorders and diseases of the eye – has been revolutionised in recent years by automated technologies for measuring the structure and function of the eye in unparalleled detail. 

Welcoming Dr Wright, Professor Pascal McKeown, Head of School and MDBS Dean of Education said:

“I am delighted to welcome Dr David Wright to the School of Medicine, Dentistry & Biomedical Sciences as the newly-appointed Belfast Association for the Blind Lecturer in Ophthalmic Data Science.

“The School has an international reputation for its pioneering research in the field of Ophthalmology. David brings an excellent level of expertise in data science and will lead on the development of pioneering novel approaches to our research in eye diseases. In doing so, he will collaborate with colleagues in the Centre for Public Health and the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, as well as across the wider university and with key international partners.  

“The School is very grateful to the Trustees of the Belfast Association for the Blind for their very generous financial support of this new post.”

The role links directly with the work being undertaken as part of the Belfast Region City Deal and the HDR-UK Data Science initiatives. Dr Wright, who previously held positions which included working on a project to assess possible links between aircraft noise and mental health, took up the post of Lecturer in Ophthalmic Data Science in February.

Belfast Association for the Blind

The Belfast Association for the Blind (BAB), one of Ireland’s oldest charities and formerly called the ‘Workshops for the Blind’, was established 1871 to support blind and visually impaired individuals in Belfast and the Province.

Commenting on the appointment, Professor Desmond Archer OBE FMedSci, Chairman of the Belfast Association for the Blind and Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology at Queen's said:

"While continuing to support visually impaired people in the Province through pension contributions, social support and various therapeutic aids, the Association has expanded its mission to include funding research and, latterly, the lectureship post now held by Dr David Wright.

"The Association supports research into the causes, prevention, and treatment of blindness at Queen’s through financial grants to the academic ophthalmic specialty for laboratory and clinical equipment, and has underwritten a wide range of research grants."

In 2020, BAB launched a new ‘International Research Student Exchange Programme’ to allow high calibre students to conduct 6 months eye research projects at the Wellcome Wolfson Institute at Queen's, and the first students have now successfully completed the programme. In February, 2021, it established the lectureship in ‘Data Science and Artificial Intelligence’ in association with the Queen's Foundation with the intention of expanding research programmes into preventing and treating vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma.

Professor Archer added: "In all, the Belfast Association for the Blind has contributed more than one million pounds to the University for Ophthalmic Research and educational programmes and remains fully committed to improving the quality of life of visually impaired individuals in the Province and beyond."

Driving forward research into patient phenotyping and clinical outcomes using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data science, Dr Wright will undertake research in the analysis of large medical and epidemiological datasets in the area of Ophthalmology / Vision Science, and will assist in statistical aspects of the research activities of the Centre for Public Health and the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s.

Explaining how he came to work in the data science field, Dr Wright said:

“My route into Data Science has been circuitous. I grew up in a commuter village in West Sussex, close to Gatwick Airport. From a young age I had an interest in being outdoors, natural history and making lists of the things I had seen. This led me to take a first degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter.

“I specialised in ecology during my final year where I was surprised to discover that the discipline is highly quantitative and willing to adopt the most advanced analytical techniques. I moved to the University of Cambridge to study for a PhD in statistical ecology, principally because there was an offer of fieldwork in New Zealand each year, where I could ride about in helicopters and measure hundreds of trees in the forests to estimate growth rates.

“However, all those measurements had to be analysed and much of my time was enjoyably spent learning to write computer code to process large volumes of data.”

Move to Belfast

It was at this point in 2010 that Dr Wright moved to Belfast and took up the first of a series of research positions in which he further developed these skills to repurpose large government and health datasets that had been originally collected for other reasons.

“Projects ranged from assessing the links between aircraft noise around airports and mental health, to investigating transmission patterns of bovine TB through the cattle population. Along the way I picked up an MSc in Statistics by distance learning from the University of Sheffield which gave me a firm grounding in the best techniques to use for each problem.”

In the new role in MDBS Dr Wright will develop the research activities of the School by sustaining a personal research programme in ophthalmic data science through the analysis of large multi-dimensional data sets (including Electronic Care Records, epidemiological, imaging and / or multi-omics data), using both statistical and modern Machine Learning approaches.

The University’s Ophthalmology Research Group, of which Dr Wright is now a part, has been at the forefront of work undertaken in clinical trials and includes academic leaders who hold a distinctive and important position in national and international eye-research.

Data-heavy eye research

Data Science aims to extract useful information from data, selecting from a wide variety of data processing and analysis methods and gathering evidence to improve these technologies in the process.

Ophthalmic Data Science involves applying this approach to the field of eye health, which, Dr Wright says, is a ‘natural fit’ because the practice of Ophthalmology generates large quantities of diverse data.

“On a given day, I might deal with a questionnaire from a research study, a set of anonymised electronic health records, genetic data pre-processed by a bioinformatics team or the raw output from an advanced retinal imaging or eye testing machine.

“Much of this data is under-used and has immense potential to help us to understand how eye diseases develop and progress, select the most effective treatments for each person and smooth pathways into and out of medical care.”

At what point in his career did Dr Wright decide he wanted to focus on the area of eye health?  

“I have had an informal interest in eye health for several years as my wife is a leading academic researcher in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common ageing eye disease.

“After numerous kitchen table statistics discussions, we decided that I could put my analytical skills to good use in some of the data-heavy eye health research projects that were then underway at Queen’s.”

Initially, in late 2017, an opportunity arose to fund this work through a Medical Research Council Fellowship affiliated with the newly formed national institute for health data research, Health Data Research UK. This enabled Dr Wright to experiment with machine learning and to connect with groups comparing treatments for glaucoma and evaluating machine learning algorithms to monitor AMD.

Having only been in post for a short time the biggest future challenge is likely to be in gaining access to the right data.

“Persuading all parties involved that a valuable medical dataset can and should be shared for research can take months or years so it is very much a waiting game,” said Dr Wright, adding: “Thankfully, there is plenty of data from clinical trials and other research studies to keep me busy in the meantime.”

Importance of funding

That work is only possible thanks to support from the Belfast Association for the Blind, which Dr Wright hopes could have a lasting impact on those in Northern Ireland with chronic eye conditions.

“This funding means a lot as it gives me a secure platform on which to develop a programme of research that complements the strong reputation of ophthalmology research at Queen’s, using the latest Data Science tools to make even better use of the data available directly or through our strategic partners.

“It is an exciting time for this work as the Belfast Regional City Deal will attract other AI professionals and companies to the health sphere and I hope to link in with aspects of this larger initiative.

“I aim to build a team with the skills and communication ability to bridge the gap between clinicians with important questions and technologists with the tools to answer them.”

Dr Wright is particularly interested in investigating whether machine learning algorithms can be used to predict progression of chronic eye diseases like glaucoma and AMD, enabling doctors to tailor treatment pathways to reduce vision loss.

“As a first step, patients with stable disease could have less frequent monitoring, reducing the burden of travelling for check-ups and freeing up resources to deal with the most severe cases.

“I find it a fascinating prospect that the best place for a high-tech data-driven approach might be to assist with the less glamourous task of scheduling appointments. Nevertheless, this could provide real benefits for people in Northern Ireland living with chronic eye conditions.”

For the past three years Dr Wright has delivered a short course in Artificial Intelligence for medical students, in which they learn to code over a three-week period. He thinks that intensive courses of this type could fit in well with many degree programmes in the health sciences and is keen to explore how these might be designed and made sustainable. 

“I would like to contribute to increasing the data-literacy of the next generation of health scientists. The endless debates around Covid-19 statistics in the past year have shown that knowing the right questions to ask when presented with a fancy new visualisation can make a big difference.

“In data-heavy disciplines like ophthalmology, a study with a handful of patients can generate far too much data to fit on a spreadsheet and knowing enough programming to set up a simple data flow can save many hours of cutting and pasting numbers, often into the wrong place!”

Dr Wright's successful application of AI machine learning in health care - not to mention his teaching of future health scientists - could be transformational for generations of future patients and, thanks to the Belfast Association for the Blind, is yet another example of the power and impact of philanthropy. 

To support health-related research projects at Queen’s, including disorders and diseases of the eye, visit the Development and Alumni Relations Office website or contact Teresa Sloan, Head of Health Fundraising. 

Media enquiries should be addressed to the Communications Officer at Queen’s University Belfast.

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