The Corneal Biology Laboratory is staffed by postdoctoral researchers, students and volunteers. Laboratory researchers originate from different parts of the world and represent both vision-specific and general cell biological disciplines. Their diverse backgrounds bring a broad scope of knowledge, perspectives, and methods to the laboratory's research activities.

Clemence Bonnet, MD

Clemence Bonnet, MD
Assistant Project Scientist

"I graduated my MD in 2014 at Paris Descartes University, Paris, France. After finishing my fellowship in Cochin Hospital, Paris, France, I came to the Stein Eye Institute in 2018 to perform a research fellowship in cornea and anterior segment diseases. My areas of interests are corneal transplants and anterior segment imaging such as optical coherence tomography (AS OCT), and in vivo confocal microscopy (IVCM). I joined Prof. Deng's team in December 2019. I work on the phase one clinical trial studying the safety and feasibility of cultivated autologous limbal stem cells as an innovative therapy for limbal stem cell deficiency. My work is focused on enrolling new patients, collecting the clinical data by performing AS OCT, IVCM and impression cytology, and analyzing them. In the laboratory, my doctoral work is focus on investigating the role of the Wnt signaling pathway in the regulation of the limbal stem/progenitors cells."

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Rachel Choi, PhD

Rachel Choi
Staff Research Associate

"I received my bachelor's degree in biology and psychology at Mount Saint Mary's University in May 2017. During my undergraduate years, I worked in an environmental microbiology lab characterizing the microbial interactions within the Los Angeles River and within the aquaponics system at USC Wrigley Institute. Post-undergrad, I joined Cedar Sinai Medical Center's department of radiation oncology where we studied the changes in the gut microbiome post-breast cancer radiation therapies and understanding the role of antifungals and PD-1/PDL1 therapies in murine breast cancer models with Dr. Stephen Shiao, Dr. Jose Limon-Tello and Dr. Kathleen Kershaw. I joined the Deng lab in November 2020 and I work closely with Dr. Sheyla Gonzalez and Dr. Maxime Ruiz on the phase 1 clinical trial manufacturing the cultured limbal stem cell transplantational drug product. Outside of lab, I enjoy running, crafting miniature dioramas, and hanging out with my pet tortoise."

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Sheyla Gonzalez, PhD

Sheyla Gonzalez, PhD
Associate Project Scientist

"I received my bachelor's degree in Cell Biology and Genetics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain) in 2006. I was then granted with a fellowship from the Spanish Ministry of Education to study the molecular regulation of the degradation of substrates by the proteasome at the IBMB-CSIC (Spain). In 2007, I was accepted in the Cell Biology PhD program at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain). I spent the first two years investigating the differential potential of mouse embryonic stem cell lines (ESC) established from isolated blastomeres at different embryonic stages. After receiving my Masters' degree in 2008, I continued to investigate deeper into the molecular mechanism of the regulation of stemness in vitro, by studying the effects of E-cadherin signaling in the derivation of mouse ESC lines. Having developed a background in stem cell biology, in 2011, I joined Dr. Sophie Deng's Laboratory. As a Postdoctoral Scholar, I have been investigating the role of Notch signaling in the regulation of human corneal epithelial stem cells (LSCs). In 2016, I transitioned into the role of Project Scientist at the Stein Eye Institute, where I bridge my basic research project with the management of the clinical project about the corneal surface regeneration by using in vitro expanded LSCs."

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Robert Knight, PhD

Robert Knight, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher

"I received my BSc, MSc and PhD from Cardiff University, UK. My PhD thesis focused on the development of small extracellular vesicle therapeutics for use as anti-scarring agents. Under the supervision of Prof Phil Stephens in the School of Dentistry I developed a novel progenitor cell line that was used for the scale up and purification of small extracellular vesicles whose function were compared to other progenitor cell derived vesicles. In 2019 I joined the Wales Research and Diagnostic PET Imaging Center for a 1-year postdoc position developing in-vivo long-term cell and extracellular vesicle radio-tracers. In September 2020 I left the UK to join Dr. Deng's research group where I am currently developing Corneal Stromal Cell Derived small extracellular vesicle therapeutics for the treatment of Corneal Scarring. Investigation focuses on pre-clinical scalability, potency testing and translation prior to clinical trials. Outside of the lab I enjoy playing tennis having competed in national and international competitions since an early age."

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Bryan Le
Visiting Medical Student Researcher

"I received my bachelor's degree in Human Biology at the University of California San Diego. After graduating, I worked as a laboratory technician at an IVF fertility center in San Diego. I then moved to Philadelphia in 2018 to attend the Drexel University College of Medicine and witnessed how ophthalmology provided a unique mix of pathologies, procedures, potential for stellar patient satisfaction, and cutting-edge research. I joined Dr. Deng's Lab in between my 3rd and 4th year of medical school, where my current work is to assist in the research of Wnt signaling in canonical and non-canonical pathways in the regulation of human limbal stem cells as well as the investigation of in vivo models of corneal wound healing. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking, playing tennis, and baking."

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Chao Ma, PhD

Chao Ma, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher

"I received my Master's degree in the school of life science in Tsinghua university in 2015. My master's research focused on studying the function of a novel Mitochondria-localized Glutamine Acid Rich Protein (MGARP) in the development of the retina, with emphasis on photoreceptor cells, by using in utero electroporation in Mgapr-/- mice retina at embryonic 14.5 day. In the meantime, I also investigated the difference of the nuclear architecture of rod photoreceptors and light-induced behavior among C57BL/6, 129x1/svj, and ICR mice on postnatal day 14 (P14), P21, P28, and 6 weeks. In 2016, I joined the department of Physiology at the Radboud university medical center (Radboudumc) as a PhD candidate under the supervision of Professor Joost Hoenderop. Our lab focuses on studying the role of ion transporters in health and disease. My PhD research mainly focused on studying how ADP-ribosylation factor-like 15 (ARL15) regulates CNNMs (Cyclin M, a Mg2+ sensor)-dependent Mg2+ transport by modulating CNNMs' N-linked glycosylation. Our results establish ARL15 as a novel negative regulator of Mg2+ transport by promoting the complex N-glycosylation of CNNMs. My background in ophthalmology and physiology led me to join Dr. Sophie Deng's laboratory in 2020. My current work involves studying how to preserve limbal stem cells for a long period so that they can be transported for corneal epithelium transplantation in limbal stem cell deficient patients, as well as investigating how Wnt signaling regulate the growth of limbal stem cells by using naturally derived bioadhesive hydrogels. Outside of the laboratory, I enjoy playing soccer, skiing, reading history books, and travelling."

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Sarah Robertson, PhD

Sarah Robertson, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher

"I received my bachelor's degree in Molecular Biology at Pomona College in 2013, where I studied mechanisms of horizontal gene transfer and identified fusion genes in choanoflagellates in the laboratory of Dr. Andre Cavalcanti. I then spent the first two years of my PhD program in Craniofacial Biology at the University of Southern California studying ion transport in tooth enamel development under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Paine. My dissertation work focused on calcium homeostasis and signaling in early stages of the developing mouse incisor. My background in signaling pathways led me to join Dr. Sophie Deng's laboratory in 2018. My current work involves studying Wnt canonical and noncanonical signaling pathways in the regulation of human corneal limbal stem cells, as well as developing an in vitro assay to evaluate potential treatments for corneal stromal wounds. Outside of the laboratory, I enjoy volleyball, swimming, and playing piano for my local church."

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Maxime Ruiz, PhD

Maxime Ruiz, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher

"I graduated my PhD in health biology at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Biotherapy of Montpellier, France in May 2018. I worked on Mesenchymal Stem Cells in the context of joint diseases within a dynamic group involved in translational research. Along with two previous laboratory experiences as an undergraduate student in the cancerology and neurobiology fields, my PhD allowed me to focus on stem cells and regenerative medicine. I joined Dr. Deng's group in November of 2018 to strengthen my scientific mindset and translate my knowledge to a different type of stem cells. My work is to provide a potency assay to assess Limbal Stem Cells in the context of corneal epithelium transplantation. These experiments include but are not limited to the analysis of components released by the cells in the culture medium such as nucleic acids, metabolites and proteins."

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Jennifer Sunga
Staff Research Associate

"I obtained my bachelor's degree in Biology from VCU in December 2019. During my undergraduate education, my interest in translational research began at the VCU Pathology department. As an undergraduate in the Radhakrishnan lab, I worked closely with Amy Northrup, a PhD candidate at the time, to develop my laboratory skills. In March 2020, I joined the Deng lab to assist with all ongoing projects."

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Rutaja R. Unhale, MD

Rutuja R. Unhale, MD, FICO
Visiting Assistant Project Scientist

"I graduated medical school in 2013 from G.S. Medical College & K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai, India. After finishing residency in Ophthalmology in 2017, I joined as a consultant eye surgeon at Netradham Eye Hospital, Maharashtra, India. At Netradham, I gained experience in cornea, comprehensive and community ophthalmology through cataract surgery camps, eye banking and mobile eye clinics. In 2019, I received the Fellow of International Council of Ophthalmology degree from ICO, London, U.K. I joined UCLA Stein Eye Institute in 2019 as an international fellow in Cornea and Refractive Surgery. As my interest in translational research grew, I joined Dr. Deng's team in January 2021. My main project is mesenchymal stem cell therapy for corneal stromal scar repair. I assist in the clinical part of the phase-1 clinical trial for the safety and feasibility of cultivated autologous limbal stem cells as a treatment for limbal stem cell deficiency."

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Current Undergraduate Students:

Ingrid Teng – Biology, UCLA, Class of 2024

Sophie Gao – Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2023

Emmanuel Williams – Biology, Oakwood University, Class of 2022

Matthew Dye – Biology, Oakwood University, Class of 2023

Chelsea Thomas – Biology, Oakwood University, Class of 2022


Past Undergraduate Students:

Jakia Islam - Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2020

Johnson Thai - Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2020

Katherine Zhuo - Human Biology and Society, UCLA, Class of 2020

Amanda Andreas - Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2021