October 15, 2020 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! Around the world in 80 days

Take a spin around the world with globetrotting sightseer, ophthalmologist and current eye care scientist, Margot Goodkin.

Margot Goodkin, executive director, ophthalmology, Allergan, an AbbVie Company, has enjoyed visiting such stunning locations as Argentina, Australia, Cambodia and Thailand.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month we travel to Irvine, California, United States, to chat with Margot Goodkin, M.D., Ph.D., executive director, clinical development, ophthalmology, Allergan, an AbbVie Company.

Margot Goodkin has literally been all over the map. In her free time, she has traversed the globe exploring stunning vistas, delightful cultures and dazzling people. For work, she has zig-zagged across a sphere of staggering disciplines: environmental, bench and regulatory science; medicine and surgery; pharmaceutical development. Now focused on cutting-edge eye care research, she spends her days envisioning a brighter future for those suffering from ophthalmic diseases.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

Prior to my dad’s career in dentistry, he was a pharmacist and always had a strong interest in what would eventually become STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I wish every little girl could have a dad like mine -- one so passionate about learning. In his 80s now, he still spends his time reading about quantum physics. My dad instilled a passion in me for learning that was unfettered by any societal expectations or stereotypes of what young boys and girls should be focusing their energies on at such an early age. I inherited my love of science from this amazing man. Both my dad (and mom) were very supportive of whatever my sister and I wanted to do. I was never made to feel there was any hurdle, or life goal, too large to achieve … all I had to do was apply myself.

You work in Irvine, California, at Allergan, an AbbVie company. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly it is that you do?

Similar to high blood pressure, where blood flows through the arteries at higher than normal rates, the eye has pressure inside it, too. My work focuses on an eye condition called glaucoma, a disease where people lose the cells inside the eye that make it possible for them to see. One of the leading causes of blindness in the world, glaucoma occurs when the pressure inside the eye is too high and damages the cells needed for sight; once these cells die, they are unable to re-grow. If you think of the eye like a bathtub, glaucoma medicines either slow down the flow of water into the tub (decrease fluid production); increase the flow of water out of the tub (increase outflow), or both. I study medicines that can help lower the pressure inside the eye to try to keep cells from being damaged, with the hope of preventing people from ultimately losing their sight.

What advice would you give your 10-year-old self about your future (or current) professional career?

If I were to offer up some advice to 10-year-old Margot, I would first have to break the news that she isn’t going to grow up to be Debbie Harry, fashionably cool lead singer of the band Blondie. After that intense heartbreak, I would then tell 10-year-old Margot it’s okay, because she can, and will, do anything she sets her mind to; that she is capable of learning and achieving things she would never even dream of at such a young age. And I would share some wisdom I learned from a highly respected mentor later in life, an ‘a-ha’ moment for me upon hearing it for the first time -- sometimes it’s better to know what you don’t want, than to know exactly what you do want. Simple, but true, it struck me like a lightning-bolt when shared. So she should feel confident that a circuitous professional path, trying on different hats and realizing some aren’t necessarily going to be the right fit on her journey, will ultimately lead her down a path of both personal happiness and professional success.

Where do you see your area of science changing and/or innovating in the next 10 years?

The beauty of science and medicine is that it is always growing and changing. By its very nature, it’s never static. Lately, with COVID-19, we’ve seen that it is possible to adapt to changing scenarios more rapidly than we expected, and that there are ideas and concepts outside of the pharmaceutical industry that could be applicable to medical science. I hope to see global collaborations increasing, and more of this ‘cross-innovation’ across disciplines and industries. I would like to see people’s eyes staying open to the possibilities. Plus, I think we will see more investigation into adapting already-existing medications and therapies across other disease states for use within ophthalmology, as scientists have been doing for combatting COVID.

I hear your love of travel almost lead to a stint in the U.S. Foreign Service. Can you shed some light on this?

I live for travel! If I were independently wealthy, I would jump on a plane and travel to destinations unknown around the clock. Take Southeast Asia -- I have visited Thailand at least 16 times: once to get married; twice to tackle two separate medical rotations; and another time to co-host a symposium for World Glaucoma Week. With each travel destination comes a renewed passion for experiencing new landscapes, people and cultures from around the world. My love of travel (and learning) led me to apply for the U.S. Foreign Service when I was fresh out of college. And although I made it all the way to the last step – complete with a full day of mind games and testing -- I just missed being accepted into the program. They encouraged me to come back in a couple of years to join a science corps they were creating, but by then I was already in med school … so alas, no Foreign Service ambassadorship for me.

Any lessons learned from the “new normal” of our current COVID-19 environment?

Right now, so many of us are preoccupied with COVID-19 and the life-altering changes we have been going through the last seven months. Being forced to focus on what matters has allowed me to find some positives amidst the negatives of this devastating pandemic. I’ve learned so much about the people I care about through this; despite the challenges, this time to reflect has been a real gift. Friends and family members are more available for each other now, something that might not be the case if we were still buzzing about our busy, pre-pandemic lives. Another gift: virtual monthly happy hours with high school friends I haven’t spoken to in ages. This would never have happened if we hadn’t been relegated to our homes, and it’s such a pleasure to spend time rediscovering one another as adults. Of course, my hope is for COVID-19 to resolve as quickly as possible, and when it does, I hope these connections with the people I care about continue indefinitely.

I’ve also found my inability to go out and run ‘normal’ errands has given me an opportunity to do the things I have always wanted to do, but never seemed to have the time. Like most people these days, I am raising a sourdough bread starter, which seems to be thriving. Hooray for science! It’s a little too robust actually and I’m having scary thoughts about it growing à la ‘The Blob’ and taking over the house. I started the container garden I always said I would, but never did, and now I have my favorite veggies growing right in my own backyard. My husband and I are using the cookbooks we’ve had forever gathering dust on the shelf. Not being able to go out and have unrestricted access to my ‘regular’ life has been a great reminder that ultimately, home life isn’t so bad either.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science is an adventure! Sometimes it’s a joyous voyage of discovery, and sometimes it’s more like the frustration of a living Jumanji. Either way, you’re tasked with putting together an elaborate puzzle or discovering a thrilling new secret. And even if you’re wrong, or you fail, your work could eventually lead to someone else unlocking the secret. Science isn’t always black and white, which can be frustrating, but it’s also what makes it so interesting. We get to help people and have fun at the same time. How could that not rock?

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Sheila Galloro
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