Major Insight Ep 2: Restoring Sight to the Blind

Emilio Bloch

A production of Miami University and the Reframe podcast, Major Insight showcases the stories behind successful college students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

On this episode, Miami student Emilio Bloch talks about his work with retina cell regeneration, alternate pathways for people interested in health-related careers, studying public health in Africa, and more.

Featured Majors

Biology, Public Health, Global Health Studies

Featured Study Abroad Program

Global Health in The Gambia

Featured Organizations

Del Rio-Tsonis Laboratory
Hefner Museum of Natural History

Read the transcript

Major Insight is a production of Miami University and the Reframe podcast. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.


Imagine being able to cure the blind. It may not be as futuristic as you think. Not anymore. In the last decade, there have been serious efforts among scientists to solve this problem, including here at Miami, where STEM student Emilio Bloch is part of a team trying to regenerate retinas in elderly adults.

Emilio is a double biology and public health major. And on this episode of Major Insight, he’s here with Miami student and host Jacob Bruggeman, to talk about his research, what it’s like to work in a real university lab, and some alternate pathways for people interested in health-related careers.

Now here’s Jacob Bruggeman and Emilio with more 

Jacob Bruggeman:

All right, so welcome to the podcast Emilio. Could you give us a little bit of an overview of your research interests, any outstanding experiences or achievements here at Miami. What's you’re up to now?

Emilio Bloch:

Yeah. So, my research interests - it's really all aligned around this lab headed by Katia Del Rio-Tsonis, who's been working on this kind of project for 15 or 20 years. It is a lab that's all based around retina cell regeneration and curing blindness in the elderly population. There's lots of different subdivisions. We even work with different animals within a lab. It's really a large and diverse lab. We work on a lot of things regarding the eye and sight.

Jacob Bruggeman:

What wing, specific wing, are you in?

Emilio Bloch:

Yeah. So, I guess in my group I'm kind of regarded as the histology specialist. So I really do … in the process of turning kind of an organism into a slide, you have to put it through this whole process where you, you know, you have to dehydrate the tissue, fixate it so it doesn't degrade, and then you embed it in some kind of compound that would be frozen. It could be wax. And then you turn it into a slide, and then you stain it so that you can actually tell what's going on within the organism at the point you collected it. And so, I don't know, my group seems to think I'm pretty good at sectioning slides, and staining them very well. So that's kind of the majority of the role in which I play. But besides that, everyone just kind of takes part in the general analysis of data, discussing and going over and trying to come up with new ideas of what to introduce into the to the organism to see what kind of response we can get out of it. 

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. Has your role evolved in that time? Were you initially slated to be the slide guy?

Emilio Bloch:

So I guess it seems like everyone … I was introduced to a bunch of different things at first. And I kind of still do those things, it's just I spend the majority of it doing histology. I mean, this is the general lab tours all the undergraduates have to do. Because when you're in an environment where you're working with postdocs, grad students, and professors, I mean, you are kind of also like cleaning beakers, making sure the ethanol is refilled. I mean, most of our project revolves around performing histology tests. Sometimes collecting DNA samples using a laser focused microscope, and then running data analyses on those.

Jacob Bruggeman:

You mentioned briefly the lab choice that many people at Miami are faced with at the beginning of their research career. Was there any particular reason you went to this lab? What advice would you give students at the outset?

Emilio Bloch:

So I really went through a kind of … I entered Miami as a pre-med biology student. And being in a lab was, you know, part of the checklist of stuff to be a good applicant to med school. But in my spring … my freshman year, I found the Hefner Museum of Natural History in Upham. And I thought, wow, this is a great place. They've got a lot of taxidermy animals. And their focus is on spring environmental awareness, and making people more eco-friendly.

So I just started volunteering there. And one time I was chatting with the volunteer director, and I said, man, don't … have you heard of axolotls, like, aren't they cool? And how they can regenerate their limbs, or organs, or whatever? And she said, well, you know, my husband works in a lab with this base around lens regeneration. And there's another lab in Miami that, you know, as well, that they just started using axolotls. And I said, well, that sounds pretty great. And so, she just pointed me to them on the website and said that Dr. Del Rio-Tsonis had some openings in her lab. So I emailed her in that spring of freshman year, and interviewed with her in the fall.

So, yeah. I would … My suggestion is you … There's two really big routes, I would guess, to getting into a research lab. You either get into one of the university health programs that will direct you to your research lab, which there are plenty. There's like FYRE and stuff like that.

Jacob Bruggeman:

First-year research experience.

Emilio Bloch:

Yeah. And the other route is just emailing professors. 

Jacob Bruggeman:

Cold calling, so to speak. 

Emilio Bloch:

Yeah. You pretty much cold call. Either that or you already know the professor. So you really get engaged in what you think is interesting. That should lead you to research that you would like. 

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. So my eyes are terrible. I wear very thick glasses. You also wear glasses. What are the implications for human sight that this research holds? It's still obviously, you know, restricted to chicken embryos, right? So embryonic chickens. So what's the steps like to see if this research can apply beyond the lab, and in the human world?

Emilio Bloch:

So this kind of research really saw an increase in frequency about 15 or 20 years ago because it's really meant to address the growing old population of the US. The elderly population suffers from diabetic retinopathy macular degeneration, which are different ways of saying that the retina, or the layer of skin at the back of their eye that turns light into a signal for your brain, is degenerating, or it's degrading, or for some reason it's just not working anymore. And so, about 15-20 years ago the NIH started putting out lots of different grants for people of different fields to try and figure out how they can solve this. Yeah. I just saw a lecture yesterday on how somebody was using physics and lasers to address the same problem. So it's really all over the place.

But in our approach, it's kind of seeing if there's a non-invasive and easily replicable way for a human to regrow parts of their retina. So for us with glasses, it's not really gonna make much of a difference. But when we start going blind, when we turned 60 or 70, the ideal thing for us would be you inject certain molecules, or you perform a small surgery with the skin graft, and you'll be able to see again. So there really is the romantic of idea of, you know, restoring sight to the blind. But we're not exactly there yet.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So you have loosely a year and a half left at Miami. Do you imagine yourself staying in this lab for the rest of your time here? Have there been opportunities for you to co-sign on publications?

Emilio Bloch:

So the project I'm specifically in -- the antioxidant project -- started when I joined the lab. And their estimation for us completing the segment that we need for the grant, and then publishing it, should be done before I graduate. But, yeah, as far as biology research, I would definitely intend to stay with this lab for the rest of my career at Miami.

They really have just helped me out so much. And through the kind of… It's not just research. They do all the things to keep you sharp on your toes, and keep up with recent research. That's like a … you know, they have you read papers every other week. Or every week. The lab as a whole all, like, 20 or 30 of us, have lab meetings every week. And somebody's presenting or talking about a project or a paper they found. 

I mean, I've had opportunities where I could go off and do other things on campus that would be interesting and be, you know, built towards my career goals. Because I don't tend to be a biology researcher after I graduate. I intend to do other things.

Jacob Bruggeman:

We'll talk about those other things on the horizon for you in a little bit. But I'd like you to talk a little bit more about the community that's developed in a lab. I think that, especially for first-year students at Miami, and then also people in different fields such as myself, the lab is a mysterious kind of place. I mean, it's something that of course varies, you know, based on the kind of research going on in there. But how would you say that, you know, this is a value added? Aside from the resume. Aside from the research experience. In terms of the community, how is it a value add to your Miami experience?

Emilio Bloch:

So I would guess for a lot of students going in, they haven't been in a real professional academic environment. I mean, you know, you go to classes, you interact with professors. But professors aren't your bosses, you know. You're not under management. But as a student, as an undergrad in a lab like this, you kind of get to see what lab structure is like, and what a general work environment would work like. You know, so you see the head professor. Your managed by whoever is in charge of projects. You were supervised by these people, the lab manager. And you can, you know, always ask about, you know, how the grants work. How you get a grant. What kind of work it takes to get a grant? And you find out that a lot of the work done in the lab is kind of centered around making sure this lab stays alive, and that it can continue to get money. Because biomedical research is very, very expensive. 

Beyond that, you meet people who are accomplished in the field from all over the country. So, I mean, there's a couple of things. Of course, you pretty much gain a mentor as long as you and whoever your supervisor is get along. You probably get the most valid form of a recommendation later you can possibly get. You know, you work for a few years in a lab, people know you there pretty well. And they can vouch for your credibility, as well as your work ethic.

Jacob Bruggeman:

You're not planning to be a biology researcher. You're not gonna go get a PhD and have a lab of your own necessarily. What are you considering for a career after Miami?

Emilio Bloch:

So the funny thing is I'm actually kind of an anomaly in my lab because they tend to either be people who want to study biology, or people who want to go into medical school. I might meet … One of my majors is biology. But my other major is actually public health. And within that, I have the concentrations of public administration and epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of the spread disease. It's a fancy word for using lot of statistics. And my minor is in global health studies.

So my immediate plans for after undergrad is I want to join the Peace Corps. After that, of course, I want to attend grad school. And I would like to just find some kind of way I can serve in public health. Because it is the intersection between science and poly-sci and society and anthropology, and which is kind of the interdisciplinary work that I like.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Within public health, what sort of role do you see yourself occupying? In the field, which is an emerging field, right? A lot of different ways in which you can find employment with a master's in public health. So what are your preliminary thoughts?

Emilio Bloch:

So when I originally started a public health major way back in my sophomore year, I initially had the kind of typical lofty idea of what a public health student wants, which is to work for the CDC, and go to some grand level administrator thing, where you feel like you can really control large things of resources and affect people. But I almost kind of … I gained a sort of mentor in the public health … One of the public health commissioners for Ohio, his name is Thomas Quaid. And what he does is he moves from county to county, based on where the most dire need is. And innovates them, and innovated systems, or whatever kind of organizations are working there, to bring … to improve the health status of that county.

So, I would like to live a life like that after grad school. Be the person who can … who knows how to bring aid where it's needed most.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So the public health program at Miami University's relatively new. So, what do you think it is doing well in terms of preparing students to go out to either master’s programs, or into the field?

Emilio Bloch:

Yeah, I mean, my majors … or the concentrations, at least, are in public health. Epidemiology and public administration. They were implemented last fall, or last spring. They are brand new, which is kind of exciting because, you know, you get to go off and be a student and think: no one else has done this before at the university. No one’s had this major combination.

I would say, for that epidemiology major, I found that there is -- I think this is on purpose almost too -- that it doesn't seem too focused. So, it's nice coming from someone who used to be biology pre-med. You just take, you know, you take your language classes. You take chemistry and biology, and when you take the same thing, semester after semester, it gets a little bit less interesting. But mixing in a lot of other classes: medical anthropology. I took that. That was a good time. Sociology courses. Poly-sci courses. Classes I did not think I was going to be taking are quite fun. Gerontology. Much more interesting than I thought it'd be, studying old people.

And you really do get to integrate stuff from other courses into each other. So I really think that's something that Miami is doing well. That and, I think, their study abroad offerings, which the university is already kind of known for. It's pretty nice. I went on a study abroad to the Gambia last summer with a chair of the Education, Health and Society – Dr. Alessio. And it was awesome. I initially didn't want to do study abroad because I thought, you know, I'm a STEM student. What's the difference about working in a lab in a different country, versus working in a lab here? Now I'm public health and I can use those programs. I think they are doing them really well.

Jacob Bruggeman:

What was the Gambia program? What was the mission, or what was the purpose of that program? 

Emilio Bloch:

The main mission, of course, was for us to become more educated in what public health is like. And then, to gain different field experiences of different public health stuff. So it was just a two-week study abroad. Not too long, you know. The first week, we met with different heads of organizations. It is such a tiny country. Made it a lot easier. We toured their only tertiary Hospital. Met the different members of Ministry of Health, and held discussions over different health topics we learned about while we were there. And how culture and society and history and politics played into that.

In the second week, you were able to choose to volunteer or kind of intern at the local maternal hospital or the St. John's School for the Deaf. And so, we kind of split up. I spent the whole week at the hospital. Most of it in the immunology clinic, where, in this tiny little room, I worked with a single nurse and an intern, who started there a week ago to vaccinate babies and mothers for about, you know, a full workday.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Something you touched on a couple times now is this realization, at least implied realization, that you had, that pre-med wasn't the route that you wanted to take. You could do the things you're passionate about, particularly public health, through a different and more interdisciplinary, I think, sort of setting. Versus, as you described it, you know, taking the same classes over and over again. Pre-med, of course, is a really popular thing at Miami University, and at universities you know, all across the United States. But it's one that many people leave. And I think that's because folks don't realize that questions of health are not strictly related …. not strictly confined to the medical profession, as we would classically think of it, such as, you know, being a doctor, a physician's assistant.

So, if you could, speak to students, and sort of pitch public health to them, what would that look like?

Emilio Bloch:

It seems like a lot of pre-med students, they love people or they love helping people. Either that, or they want to make an impact in the world, be respected, and have a career where they know that they are helping the general good every day that they do work. Public health you do the same thing, but in a non-direct manner, I think. What Thomas Quaid said to me when I was talking with him over break, he said public health is a silent guardian of the population. 

So for pre-med students, if you really believe that pre-med is the only thing you can do. It's the only thing you want to do. There's no other …. you know, there's no other occupation -- like being a doctor -- that's going to do good and feel fulfilling. I would encourage you to explore other avenues. You know, of course, typical stuff like that comes with taking other courses outside the pre-med curriculum.

I would suggest really thinking about things that made you interested … that you were interested in besides science, or stuff that was related to medicine. For me, I think the big sign was, freshman year, when I took International Studies. I found it was my favorite class that semester. Maybe it's because I had a great professor, Dr. Otto, he's a great guy. And maybe it's because I decided that I like interdisciplinary subjects. Because, after all, you know, what good is it being a doctor if nobody is, you know, creating a system where doctors can work? Or where there's too many patients for a doctor to be able to actually handle? But, yeah, that's why I would tell pre-med students definitely diversify your interests. Don't doubt yourself. But don't count yourself out of any other kind of field.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Excellent. Well that sounds like a good place to maybe close. Thanks for coming on the podcast. We appreciate it.


Emilio Bloch is public health and a biology major. After graduation he plans to pursuing a career in public health.

Major Insight a production of Miami University and the Reframe podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend. It’s available for free on Apple Podcasts, Sound Cloud, and on Google Play Music.


 Major Insight

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This is where we showcase our students and how they transform academic subjects into lifelong passions. Join us wherever you listen to your podcasts and discover these students journeys.

Host Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggemam

The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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