Feature Story | 1-Apr-2024

WVU biology student keeping an eye on unique vision problems

West Virginia University

When Easton Cahill arrived at West Virginia University, he was the first in his family to attend college. As a high school student in Bridgeport, he was drawn to science through the influence of his biology teacher. Once he discovered his affinity for research, his path became clear — WVU was his choice.

As his first semester began, so did the hard work. Eager to dive in, Cahill took part in the Research Apprenticeship Program, through which he met his mentor, Wen-Tao Deng, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences as well as biochemistry and molecular medicine, both in the School of Medicine. Deng’s research focuses on retinal degeneration and gene therapy, and her arrival at WVU coincided with Cahill’s. As Deng got her lab up and running, he got to learn about the development process, as well as how to run such a facility.

The experience stuck with him, and he stuck with Deng.

“I’ve been with her for three years,” said Cahill, a biology junior. “I’ve been doing gene therapy on congenital forms of blindness, and we work primarily with a disease called ‘blue cone monochromacy.’ It’s like a double colorblindness. It’s a genetic disease that occurs in different pockets throughout the world, and Appalachia is one of those pockets where you have a higher incidence of this disease. So, this research is especially applied and impactful to West Virginia.”

Cahill is currently finishing up his largest project to date and his first research paper as a primary author. The study uses a mouse model to look at blue color monochromacy and explores gene therapy that may treat the condition.

A researcher at heart, he finds the lab work anything but tedious.

“Something I didn’t expect about lab work was how practical it was,” he said. “Obviously, there are big ideas behind it, but so much of it is just working with your hands. It reminds me of working on my grandparents’ farm when I was a child, and how it was so similar. It’s just your hands performing these simple, repetitive tasks.”

Additionally, Cahill said lab work has taught him how to be a better student, scholar and presenter, as weekly lab meetings provide an opportunity for students to present their research to peers and mentors.

Perhaps it’s fate that Cahill’s research focuses on a condition found in West Virginia. The state has the highest incidence of blindness in the U.S., which gives him and his fellow researchers a chance not only to study vision problems, but also to make a difference in their own communities. In addition to working with organizations like the West Virginia Lions Club and the Blue Cone Monochromacy Families Foundation, he’s also worked with those affected by the condition.

“When you get to meet the real people that it’s affecting, the families who are going through these things, you know why you’re doing it. And you get to meet the people who are waiting for what you are researching and how it can help them. Those have been my coolest moments.”

While he continues to enjoy working with Deng, Cahill was looking for ways to get involved in research even before his freshman year began. Prior to the start of his first semester in 2021, he attended the Summer Immersion Experience at WVU. The residential STEM internship program, hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Research, offered unique research opportunities for first-generation and underrepresented first-year students from rural areas.

“The Summer Immersion Experience was my first research experience and one of my favorites,” he said.

Cahill and his classmates spent two weeks working in the West Run Watershed, where they studied land use impacts on water quality with Jason Hubbart, associate dean of research at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. The incoming freshman was particularly intrigued by the prevalence of acid mine drainage.

“West Virginia is a headwater state,” he said. “So what happens here really impacts all the downstream states and all the downstream people.”

This first taste of research whet Cahill’s appetite for STEM. Now, as he begins to look toward graduation, he hopes to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees with a focus on ophthalmology, the field that has taught him so much and sparked his love of research.

Back in Bridgeport, Cahill’s family follows his academic journey with excitement.

“I was recently published in December of 2023 for the first time,” he said. “And my mother was very, very, very proud. I took my first scientific paper home. I said, ‘This is the goal. This is what I'm trying to do.’ It was a full circle moment when I finally got to give her a call and tell her, ‘We did it.’”

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