2024 winners

Winners 2024

Rank Prize for Optoelectronics

For the development of instruments that use adaptive optics technologies to capture high-resolution images of the living human retina

Dr Junzhong Liang
Professor Donald T. Miller
Professor Austin Roorda
Professor David R. Williams

The 2024 Rank Prize for Optoelectronics is awarded to four internationally leading scientists for the development of instruments that use adaptive optics technologies to capture high-resolution images of the living human retina. Their pioneering research has generated new fundamental insights into the structure and function of the human eye in both health and disease as well as new clinical interventions to remedy sight loss from common disorders.

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The prize recognizes a seminal contribution to imaging within the eye that opens new opportunities to understand this complex optical instrument and to improve eyesight through precise interventions. The winners are to be commended both on their highly insightful contributions to vision science and their subsequent development of applications.”

Professor Donal Bradley CBE FRS Chair, Optoelectronics Committee

Adaptive optics (AO) is a technique used in astronomy to reduce image blur in ground-based telescopes. The seminal invention by Dr Junzhong Liang, Professor David R. Williams and Professor Donald T. Miller in 1997 combined adaptive optics with an objective wavefront sensor to create a retinal imaging camera that exquisitely controlled the light both entering and exiting the pupil. The camera compensated for distortions caused by the eye’s natural aberrations, producing a clear image of individual photoreceptor cells. The instrument was used by Professor Austin Roorda and Professor David R. Williams in 1999 to produce the first-ever images showing the distribution of the three cone types in the human retina that are used for colour vision, revealing a surprising randomness and heterogeneity of the spatial distribution of the long- and middle-wavelength-sensitive cone types.

Why the work is important

Since the initial invention, the field of AO-based retinal imaging has expanded rapidly. Successive improvements to the hardware and combinations with other imaging modalities have led to significant achievements in basic science and clinical applications, including the ability to visualise individual cells across all layers of the complex retinal structure. All four prizewinners have continued to play leading roles in these developments.

The adaptive optics retinal imaging techniques pioneered by the prizewinners have enabled microscopic, real-time visualisation of the only part of the brain visible to the external world — the retina — without invasive surgery, driving advances in the understanding and betterment of human vision.

Dr Junzhong Liang: “I am greatly honoured to receive the 2024 Rank Prize for Optoelectronics for my early involvements in developing adaptive optics technologies for imaging the living retina. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my fellow laureates in particular and many other researchers for their outstanding research that has significantly advanced adaptive optics technologies for vision and ophthalmology, and the Rank Prize for awarding this prestigious prize to four of us.”

Professor Donald T. Miller: “It is a great honour to receive the 2024 Rank Prize with my longtime colleagues Junzhong Liang, Austin Roorda, and David Williams. It still feels like yesterday when we were working in David Williams’ laboratory developing the first ophthalmic adaptive optics system. The technology and its application to the eye have grown incredibly in the years since thanks to the contributions of so many amazing individuals. The Rank Prize is a wonderful recognition of this effort.”

Professor Austin Roorda: “I am tremendously honoured to receive this award along with such an accomplished and illustrious team. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to play a role in the development and dissemination of this important technology. Thanks to the Rank Prize committee for recognizing adaptive optics as a paradigm-changing technology for ophthalmoscopy.”

Professor David R. Williams: “Of course, we would have been ecstatic under any circumstances at the news of receiving the Rank Prize in Optoelectronics, but it is all the more impactful given the inspirational careers of the prior recipients, including notably, Horace Babcock, who introduced adaptive optics for astronomy the year I was born, and without whose insight we would never have applied adaptive optics to the eye. Also, inventions and discoveries are almost always made by teams and this certainly was the case in this instance. So I am so proud to be sharing this award with my former teammates, each of whom was not only critical to the initial development of ophthalmic adaptive optics but also continue to lead its evolution so successfully through their independent careers post Rochester.”

About our four Rank Prize-winning scientists

Dr Junzhong Liang

Junzhong Liang received a BS and MS in Physics/Optics from Nankai University, China, and a PhD in Applied Physics from Heidelberg University, Germany in 1992. He built the first wavefront sensor for human eyes using a Shack-Hartmann sensor during his PhD study, and the first adaptive optics system that corrected the eye’s high-order aberrations for the first time and enabled the microscopic imaging of living retina as a post-doc researcher in Prof. David Williams’ Lab at the University of Rochester. He invented non-diffractive wavefront multifocal lenses which enabled SIFI SpA in Italy to develop the first presbyopia-correcting multifocal IOLs without inducing night symptoms, including Mini-Well Ready and Evolux. He founded Krypton Vision Inc. in 2011, developed high-definition digital eyeglasses that are not affected by lens movements, and new phoropter with wavefront intelligence for refraction automation. Since co-founding Apolloptix Inc. in 2022, he has been working on developing new refractive surgeries for treatments of not only myopia and astigmatism but also presbyopia by one lens.

Professor Donald T. Miller

Donald Miller received his BS degree in Physics from Xavier University and his PhD in optics from the University of Rochester. He joined the faculty at Indiana University School of Optometry in 1998 and has held the rank of Professor since 2011. Miller’s research  focuses on the application of optical engineering and biomedical optics to the human eye. His laboratory develops and applies powerful optical imaging systems to study structures and processes in the living human retina at the cellular level in normal and diseased eyes, studies that have been traditionally limited to histology. In particular, he has pioneered the development of high-resolution imaging systems based on the technologies of adaptive optics and optical coherence tomography. The unprecedented 3D resolution and speed of these systems have enabled cells across the full thickness of the retina to be imaged and tracked for the first time, including the highly transparent neurons of the inner retina such as ganglion cells. Miller is a fellow of SPIE and Optica, and a recipient of the Glenn Fry Award, sponsored by the American Academy of Optometry. He has received Indiana University Trustees’ Teaching Award twice for excellence in teaching.

Professor Austin Roorda

Austin Roorda is a Professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his PhD from the University of Waterloo, Canada in 1996 in Vision Science & Physics. He had the good fortune to secure a postdoctoral fellowship position in David Williams’ lab at the University of Rochester where he got to use the world’s first adaptive optics ophthalmoscope. Since that time, he has been pioneering new applications that leverage the microscopic access offered by adaptive optics and has been using them for basic and clinical science. In 2001, while he was faculty at the University of Houston College of Optometry, he invented the Adaptive Optics Scanning Light Ophthalmoscope (AOSLO), a platform that is now used widely for microscopic retinal imaging around the world. Notable awards include the Distinguished Alumni Award (University of Waterloo School of Optometry, 2007), the Glenn Fry Award (American Academy of Optometry, 2009), a John S. Guggenheim Fellowship (2014), an Alcon Research Institute Award (2016) and a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship (2020) from the University of Oxford.

Professor David R. Williams

David R. Williams’ scientific career has marshalled advances in optical technology to discover how our eyes allow us to see. Williams received his PhD in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego in 1979 under the mentorship of Donald I. A. MacLeod. In 1981, he joined the University of Rochester. Early work definitively established the role that the grain of the photoreceptor mosaic plays in the limits of human visual acuity. Subsequently, Junzhong Liang and Don Miller, two postdoctoral fellows working in Williams’ laboratory, built the first adaptive optics system for the eye, showing that vision can be improved beyond that provided by conventional spectacles. Most recently, Williams, in collaboration with William Merigan and Juliette McGregor, have developed an adaptive optics-based method to optically record from retinal ganglion cells and also to optogenetically drive their responses with light in the living eye.  They are currently exploiting these methods to understand the role for vision of the specialized circuits in the retina and also to restore vision in some forms of blindness. Prior awards include the Edgar G. Tillyer Award (1998), the Friedenwald Award (2006), the Bressler Prize (2007), the Champalimaud Vision Award (2012), The Procter Prize (2015), and the RPB David F. Weeks Award (2020).  He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2014.