Finding Clarity: Fellowship supports Ben Sajdak’s career path

For some people, career paths are well-defined tracks laid out early on.

Ben Sajdak
Ben Sajdak

But for Ben Sajdak, who completed his Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellowship in September, a career path wasn’t initially apparent. However, two important “ah-ha” moments eventually brought a trajectory into focus.

This month, Sajdak completed his three-year-long fellowship and joined Fauna Bio Inc. as the Director of Emerging Animal Models. He is using animal models to help researchers better understand human diseases.

Initially, science — and an advanced degree — wasn’t where Sajdak saw himself going. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, he tried out a neurobiology course taught by Professor Dana Merriman. Not long before, he had suffered a stroke and her lectures resonated during his recovery.

“One of Dr. Merriman’s lectures covered the part of the brain that was affected by my stroke,” he recalls. “I remember being absolutely fascinated that we were learning about something I had personally gone through … I knew this was going to be my passion.”

He began working in Merriman’s lab studying retinas in the 13-Lined Ground Squirrel (it turns out that the small rodent is an excellent animal model for studying human vision). He examined dissected retinas and explored their biology and microscopic structure.

That led him to pursue a Ph.D. and continue research in the neuroscience doctoral program at the Medical College of Wisconsin. That’s where he met his future Ph.D. advisor Joseph Caroll and had his second “ah-ha.”

“After spending so much time in the lab looking at dissected tissues, I remember Dr. Carroll asking, ‘What if I told you that you could image live tissues?’ I was so excited about the concept that I don’t remember my other interviews that day!”

He defended his Ph.D. in 2019 and joined the Wisconsin Advanced Imaging of Visual Systems Laboratory (WAIVS) project with the support of the Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellowship program.

“The goal is to create a system that can image patients with early-stage retinal diseases, to try and find biomarkers that can guide new treatment strategies”

Ben Sajdak

At WAIVS, he worked with a cross-campus group of collaborators to harness the power of microscopy. They aim to create better screening and diagnostic tools for early-stage retinal diseases.

Sajdak’s mentors included Kevin Eliceiri (Morgridge Institute Biomedical Imaging and UW-Madison Medical Physics), Jeremy Rogers (UW-Madison Biomedical Engineering), and David Gamm (UW-Madison Ophthalmology). Each researcher, including Sajdak, are members of the UW-Madison McPherson Eye Research Institute, which collaborates with the Morgridge Institute, the Department of Ophthalmology, and other campus entities to support WAIVS.

“The goal is to create a system that can image patients with early-stage retinal diseases, to try and find biomarkers that can guide new treatment strategies,” says Sajdak.

Sajdak and collaborators building an adaptive-optics microscope for imaging the human retina

A similar clinical model would be a pap smear that uses cervical tissues to look for signs of disease. But, unfortunately, it’s difficult to collect retina tissue from patients. And although it is possible to view the retina from outside the body, obtaining microscopic imagery is difficult. The eye’s shape, size, and optical properties — combined with patient comfort issues during image collection — make non-invasive microscopy challenging.

Sajdak spent his time as a Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellow tackling these challenges.

This past year, working closely with Rogers and collaborator Alfredo Dubra of Stanford University, he built an adaptive-optics microscope for retina imaging.

Today, Sajdak is excited about a new partnership with UW Health to identify patients for testing the instrument.

“Ben’s interest in both imaging and vision medicine was just the right bridge for my lab, Jeremy’s lab, and David’s lab,” says Eliceiri. “Ben really was the glue that brought this project together.”

Eliceiri also believes that the independence offered by the Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellowship enables talented researchers like Sajdak to identify and pursue new opportunities. In addition to his supportive research advisors and career advising from the UW-Madison Office of Postdoctoral Studies, Sajdak says that opportunities accompanying the Fellowship were important tools helping him decide his next career move at Fauna Bio Inc.

“The scientific leadership course and career counseling sessions were very useful,” Sajdak adds, noting that conversations with Morgridge Trustees were catalysts for his career. “They convinced me that it’s important to pursue what you love and to explore possibilities outside the path you’re told to pursue.”

Sajdak is excited to keep advancing human health, and he’s energized by what’s next.

by Wes Marner | September 22, 2021