Down Under and Around the Globe

Beau Fenner, MD, PhD grew up enjoying the beautiful waters off the southwestern coast of Australia – yet his pursuit of the best education led him to some of the top institutions around the world, including in Ireland and Singapore. During ophthalmology and medical retina fellowship at the National Eye Centre in Singapore, he developed an interest in inherited retinal diseases (IRD). Seeing an opportunity to create a leading ocular genetics center in Asia, he sought the best training in IRDs he could find.

“I was looking for somebody who not only knew inherited retinal diseases inside and out—but who was also prepared to spend time training me,” described Dr. Fenner. “As fate would have it, Dr. Ed Stone at University of Iowa had recently initiated an IRD fellowship that was intended for people who wanted to make IRDs a central part of their career.” 

Dr. Fenner at ARVO with research mentors, Drs. Robert Mullins, Budd Tucker, and Ed Stone

Dr. Fenner at ARVO with research mentors, Drs. Robert Mullins, Budd Tucker, and Ed Stone

Leaving behind the urban bustle of Singapore for the cornfields of Iowa City, Dr. Fenner served as the inaugural Mina Chung Fellow in Inherited Retinal Disease from 2022-23. Moving his family in the midst of a pandemic was no trivial decision, but one made simpler thanks to the strong reputation of the University of Iowa and the opportunity to experience life in the Midwest. “In addition to the fellowship itself, location was an important part of my decision,” said Dr. Fenner. “I have 3 young children who have grown up in a large and densely populated city, so the opportunity for them to experience more of the outdoors, much like where I myself grew up in Western Australia, was just too good to pass up.” 

Iowa’s unique environment, which balances intense, world-class training with a welcoming, family-friendly setting, has attracted many of the brightest minds in ophthalmology for decades. Over the past 60 years, the University of Iowa has trained over 120 retina fellows who have become go-to physicians in their community and leading examples of excellence in clinical care, teaching, and research. Iowa retina fellows currently practice in over 30 states in the US and numerous places internationally, including Canada, England, China, and New Zealand. Prominent alumni include Dr. Andrew Lotery, featured in Iowa Vision (page 11), as this year’s prestigious Paul Henkind Award winner from the Macula Society. 

“The fact that Beau moved his family halfway around the world speaks to the strength of Iowa’s global reputation and the relatability of our collegial culture, including through visionary leaders like Ed Stone, a guiding figure in inherited retinal disease for decades” says Dr. Ian Han, Director of the Retina Service, who worked closely with Dr. Fenner for the year.

“It was a joy to have Beau at Iowa – he quickly wove himself into the fabric of our department and was an exemplary doctor for our patients, as well as an influential teacher to the residents.” 

Dr. Fenner teaching residents and fellows in the retina workroom after clinic.

Dr. Fenner teaching residents and fellows in the retina workroom after clinic.

Dr. Fenner remembers his time in the department fondly and found the family atmosphere at Iowa especially unique. “I was consistently surprised by how warm and welcoming the clinical faculty and trainees were. It’s really something that stood out to me, especially when compared to other large teaching hospitals where there are limited opportunities to spend quality time with teaching faculty.”  

For Dr. Fenner, fellowship in Iowa was a springboard to leadership and innovation back home. “Within a few months of returning to Singapore, I was given the opportunity to create and lead an Ocular Genetics Service at the Singapore National Eye Centre,” Dr. Fenner notes. “On the research side, I’ve recently formed some strong collaborations with basic scientists from our affiliated eye research institute and we are now developing targeted therapeutics that are relevant to IRD patients here in Singapore.” 

For Dr. Fenner and other Iowa fellows, the time spent in training is just part of a lifelong relationship. “We miss Beau a lot,” says Dr. Han, “but I’m glad that we still get to work together on research collaborations. During his time at Iowa, Beau authored multiple papers, including a landmark paper representing the largest clinical case series ever published for ABCA4-associated retinal disease (see QR code below). We are currently meeting regularly for online lab meetings as part of a multicenter collaboration studying artificial intelligence-based image analysis for inherited retinal disease.”  

Dr. Fenner presenting his poster at ARVO 2023, with retina faculty Dr. Han

Dr. Fenner presenting his poster at ARVO 2023, with retina faculty Dr. Han

Dr. Fenner also remains closely connected with Dr. Stone and the Institute for Vision Research, including through monthly virtual didactic sessions on inherited retinal disease for Singapore and Malaysia. These case-based sessions are attended by participants worldwide and reflect Iowa’s strong reputation internationally, as well as Dr. Fenner’s rising stardom in the field.    

Although Dr. Fenner’s time in Iowa was relatively brief, the lessons learned have been enduring. “The time spent in Iowa has played an important role for me when considering what treatment approaches are more likely to be useful for my patients. It’s one of the most challenging areas in ophthalmology, but the potential rewards for patients are incredible,” says Dr. Fenner. “I’m incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with the UI Retina faculty.” 

Read Dr. Fenner’s landmark research paper: 

Tuesday, May 28, 2024