When it comes to diseases of the eye, one Montrealer is making a big difference in the lives of his patients. Brazilian-born Dr. Miguel Burnier once dreamed of becoming one of his country’s next great soccer stars. However, coming from a family of doctors and engineers and starting his career cleaning equipment part-time in his uncle’s pathology laboratory led him to pursue a passion even greater than soccer: medicine.

After graduating from medical school in Sao Paulo, Dr. Burnier moved to Washington, D.C., to train at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology with Dr. Lorenz Zimmerman, a world-renowned ophthalmologist. In 1993, he joined McGill University to serve as Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology, and his decision to move to Canada was an easy one. “I knew I wanted to work in a university that was research intensive, and I’ve always thought of Canada as the best country in the world,” Dr. Burnier explains. “McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) were the ideal fit, and my work couldn’t be what it is now if it were situated anywhere other than right here in Montreal,” he says.

Dr. Burnier runs the Ocular Pathology Laboratory at the MUHC, an international leader in research, education and consultation in diseases related to the eye. In fact, students from Canada and around the world train year-round under his guidance. “The lab is very much like the soccer field I grew up playing on,” Dr. Burnier states. “Everyone is working together in support of a common objective, which in this case, is to tackle some of the world’s most challenging ocular diseases,” he says.

Dr. Burnier’s lifelong commitment to ocular diseases has certainly not gone unnoticed. He has authored more than 500 publications, and is frequently asked to serve as a guest speaker at conferences around the world. This year, Dr. Burnier also became the first Canadian to be President-Elect of the Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology (PAAO), a group that is working to discover new ways in which to improve the outcomes of patients living with ocular diseases. He and his team collaborate with labs in 25 other countries, from as far as the UK, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, USA, Spain, Portugal, Chile and Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Miguel Burnier

Dr. Miguel Burnier with his students of the MUHC’s Ocular Pathology Laboratory

The collaborative environment promoted in the lab along with Dr. Burnier’s leadership has made the MUHC’s Ocular Pathology Laboratory an international centre and hub for ocular care and research. “I give full credit to my students, they are the main reason why our lab has gained such a stellar reputation,” Dr. Burnier says modestly. “The diversity of the student body working together is what makes the MUHC and Montreal so great,” he states. The expertise in the lab is complimented with some of the most innovative research equipment and technology available, making the MUHC’s Ocular Pathology Laboratory the largest and one of the most successful and dynamic research facilities in the world.

If you ask Dr. Burnier’s students what makes him so special, the answer is just about unanimous – his ability to motivate and inspire the people around him to reach their goals. The words “it can’t be done” don’t exist in his lab and are instead replaced with “it hasn’t been done yet”. Together, Dr. Burnier and his students are working to turn new ideas into tangible solutions, while continuing to challenge conventional approaches to research. “Dr. Burnier has created such an amazing environment,” explains Shawn Maloney, a former Masters and PhD student of the lab. “He encourages us to bring new options to the table and because everyone has such different backgrounds, it leads to very meaningful discussions and innovative experiments to pursue. That’s really when the magic happens and it couldn’t be possible without Dr. Burnier, the MUHC, and quite frankly, Montreal,” he says.

Proving that there is definitely no “I” in team, Dr. Burnier has touched the lives of countless students and has put Montreal on the map as a leader in ocular research. But for him, he focuses on what’s important: “We don’t do research as an intellectual exercise. We do research because there is a patient at the end of the day.”

To learn more about the MUHC’s Ocular Pathology Laboratory, please visit www.muhcfoundation.com

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