On Pragmatism, Collaboration, Hard Work and The Merits of Large Families
When it comes to predicting success in life, birth order and family size are hotly-debated topics. Popular psychology asserts that middle children are more neglected (therefore more disadvantaged and less likely to succeed) than their oldest or youngest siblings.
Dr. Edward Holland is a striking contradiction to that assertion.
“My parents had five boys in six years. I was number three, so I learned to go along to get along,” he says. He believes his large family (nine siblings in total) also fostered his independent thinking, curiosity, and relentless work ethic. Everyone in Holland’s family worked very hard, starting with his mother, an ob-gyn nurse at the local hospital. Her example set the tone at home. “Growing up in a big family leaves you little room for self-delusion,” he says. Self-awareness and innate pragmatism helped him become a capable negotiator: he learned to avoid conflicts by watching his older brothers clash with their parents.
It also filled Holland with a yearning for greater purpose. He knew he wanted to make a difference with his life but didn’t choose medicine until late in college. Ophthalmology became his focus only after exposure midway through medical school. “I knew I wasn’t the smartest student, but I knew how to organize a problem by eliminating 90% of the noise, and then focus on the 10% that really matters. My brain just works that way.”
That clarity of focus means he has been astonishingly productive with his time (and achievements). A self-described good-but-not-brilliant med student, Holland decided to conduct ophthalmology research to enhance his credentials. It resulted in a presentation at ARVO and a publication in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science as a medical student. This academic work paved the way into an ophthalmology residency at the University of Minnesota. There, Holland trained with world-renowned ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Lindstrom, who is legendary for finding and encouraging talent. Lindstrom urged Holland to pursue a corneal fellowship at the University of Iowa and a second fellowship in immunology at the National Eye Institute. Lindstrom saw the value of this training and invited Holland back to Minnesota to establish one of the first high-risk cornea transplant services.
But Holland’s path wasn’t always smooth and simple. In Minnesota, he struggled with a subset of high-risk corneal transplant patients who had limbal stem cell failure, a diagnosis not well understood at the time. Ocular surface transplants were being performed but rejection was a major problem. Systemic immunosuppression (as was applied to organ transplant patients) was required to prevent rejection of ocular surface transplants, but those immunosuppression protocols weren’t being used. Dr. Lindstrom urged Holland to seek out the University of Minnesota’s head of renal transplants, Dr. Jon Najarian, to see what lessons could be applied to ophthalmology.
“Najarian was a former football player, and a titan in his field of medicine, so he was an intimidating guy!” exclaims Holland. “His feedback to me was, ‘either you step up and join the big leagues or move out altogether.’ Najarian felt that either we should fully, truly adopt immunosuppression, or not use these meds at all.”
Holland took Najarian’s advice and transformed the ophthalmology team’s success rate. This experience also encouraged Holland to follow his curiosity and passion – increasingly in the areas of corneal transplants, ocular surface transplants (and more recently, corneal endothelial cell therapy and limbal stem cell therapy).
Holland realized he’d found his purpose in life: “I felt like I truly had a calling to solve cornea blindness cases that my colleagues couldn’t solve.”
After many successful years in Minnesota, Holland pursued an opportunity to build a bigger cornea service in Cincinnati. Once again, his relentless work ethic, pragmatism and ability to work effectively with others were essential to establishing what he calls the “four-fecta” of successful collaboration between the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Eye Institute, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (in next-door northern Kentucky) and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
While academic / community relations in medicine are typically thorny, it’s the exact opposite in this region. The four organizations share knowledge, resources, fellows and credit for their successes. During his tenure, Holland and his colleagues have made Cincinnati a global destination for treating the most complex, high-risk ocular surface diseases in patients of all ages. Referrals come from all over the US and abroad.
Holland cites great teamwork – at the individual and institutional levels – for this success, but certainly it all starts with his leadership style: direct, no-nonsense, collaborative and curious. Holland disagrees: success is due to the “four institutions’ shared commitment to excellent patient care.”
What brought Holland to Aurion Biotech? Holland chuckles. “As with most of my life-changing career decisions, I can blame Dick Lindstrom!” Lindstrom sought out Holland to join the Medical Advisory Board for CorneaGen, when it was founded in 2015. When CorneaGen in-licensed ground-breaking corneal endothelial cell therapy from Professor Kinoshita and Kyoto Prefecture University of Medicine, and then established Aurion Biotech to further develop this cell therapy, Holland decided to deepen his involvement. “I love the Aurion Biotech team: they’re smart, curious and collaborative. No egos,” Holland says. “Corneal endothelial cell therapy is truly transformative; I’m really enjoying this work!”
The feelings are mutual. We at Aurion Biotech are grateful for, and inspired by, Dr. Holland’s leadership.