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
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."
Madison Canter, BS
“I graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in May of 2023 with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Honors with Distinction. While conducting undergraduate research for over 3 years I focused on the inhibitory effects of Chlamydia psittaci on apoptosis in infected HeLa cells. In June of 2023, I joined Dr. Deng’s lab as a Staff Research Associate II to work on a phase I clinical trial of cultivating autologous limbal stem cells through GDP and GMP guidelines.”
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."
John Y. Lee, MD
EyeSTAR Ophthalmology Residency/PhD Program
"I received my bachelor’s in Biochemistry and Cell Biology with a minor focus in Global Health Technologies at Rice University, where my research focused on enhancing efficacy of transplanted hPSC-derived cartilage constructs with pre-transplantation molecular pathway modulation. I then received my M.D. in 2021 from University of Miami where I focused my research in orbital oncology and utilizing bioinformatics software to predict/validate novel therapeutics for thyroid eye disease. Now, I am in the dual ophthalmology residency/PhD program at UCLA (EyeSTAR program) and am currently completing the PhD portion of my training. I am interested in leveraging the unique properties of CSSC-derived extracellular vesicles as a treatment for corneal scarring and engineering their structure to enhance therapeutic function. Outside the lab, I like to surf, play tennis, and golf."
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."
Leya Weber, MS
Staff Research Associate
“I received my master’s degree in Health Sciences and Technology with a major in Medical Technology at ETH Zurich in Switzerland in 2022. I conducted my master-thesis in a mechanobioengineering lab at UCLA, investigating and phenotyping senescence in mesenchymal stromal cells derived from the bone marrow, using AI image translation. As a staff research associate, I joined Dr. Deng’s lab, where I work on our clinical project about corneal surface regeneration by using in vitro expanded LSCs, in a small-molecule Wnt mimic project to improve human limbal stem cell ex vivo expansion and be responsible for lab maintenance. Outside of the lab, I enjoy running, playing beach volleyball, and hiking.”
Sophie Gao, BS
"I received my bachelor's degree in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at UCLA in 2023. I joined the lab in May 2021, where I was first introduced to stem cell-based therapies to better treat corneal disease. Currently, I am working on a project that focuses on validating pre-clinical biomarkers and assays that can better predict the anti-scarring effects of corneal stromal stem cell-derived extracellular vesicles. I am now working as a staff research associate and plan to attend medical school in the future. Outside of the lab, I enjoy traditional Chinese dance and cooking."
“I graduated with my Ph.D. degree from the Stevens Institute of Technology in 2022. My Ph.D. study included two parts: (1) Tissue engineering which included Organ-on-chip and organoid studies; (2) Cancer immunotherapy that NK/T/Macrophage cells are involved. Then I worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow the same year in the Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in City of Hope to study the generation and characterization of human chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-immune cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) and the encapsulation of oncolytic Herpes Simplex Virus using CD47 enriched erythrocyte membrane conjugated with anti-PSCA antibody for augmented anti-refractory tumor effectiveness. Having trained in both tissue engineering and cancer immunotherapy, I recognize the urgent need for translational researchers to serve as important bridges between bench-to-bedside science and bedside-to-bench medicine. Therefore, I decided to join Dr. Sophie X. Deng’s lab as a Postdoctoral Scholar to work on the GDP and GMP limbal stem cells clinical trials in 2023.”
“I received my Bachelor's degree in Life Science at the D.D.U Gorakhpur University, U.P, India in 2013. I graduated with my Master’s degree in Biotechnology in 2015 at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, U.P, India. In 2016, I was accepted in the PhD program at Institute of Medical Science, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, U.P, India. I spent five years investigating the different potential molecules (phytocompounds) which help in Diabetes treatment and try to find out the mechanism on molecular level. During my Ph.D., I explored different field such as molecular, bioinformatics, and phytopharmaceuticals to find out the better drug in diabetes treatment.
Having developed a background in different field of biology, in 2022, I joined Dr. Sophie Deng's Laboratory, UCLA. As a Postdoctoral Scholar, I have been investigating the role of the small molecule in the regulation of human corneal epithelial stem cells (LSCs). Additionally, I currently work on the Phase I clinical trials cultivating limbal stem cells for patients who have limbal stem cell deficiency.”
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