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Staff spotlight: Elliott Sohn, MD, an eye for fast cars

Date: Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Elliot SohnElliott Sohn, MD, will take a break from being an ophthalmologist this week to help raise awareness of vision research in a unique way: race car driving. He will race at the 2017 Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Championship Runoffs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 8:30 a.m. EST, Sunday, Oct. 1, in the Formula Enterprise (FE) class. Live action and updates can be seen at www.scca.com/runoffs.

Intertwining his two worlds—vision research and racing—is what Sohn loves. His race car is decorated with Hawkeye symbols and promotes the UI Institute for Vision Research. When he travels to races, Sohn meets people from around the country, and he talks to them about the UI and the research the institute is doing.

What do you do here at the hospital?

“I do a mix of things, but my appointment is in ophthalmology as a retina specialist. I also teach and lead the training programs in medical and surgical retina (i.e., fellowships). The rest of the time I’m in the lab doing research on various retinal conditions, from common diseases like diabetes and age-related macular degeneration to rare, inherited retinal diseases. With a world class team at the UI Institute for Vision Research, I work with mouse models and perform pig surgeries to evaluate gene and stem cell treatments to cure these inherited disorders. We plan to bring treatments that we’re testing in these animals to humans because we are just starting to be able to correct people’s genetic mutations in the eye.”

Tell me about racing cars.

“It was another UI physician who told me I should come out to the track with him one day with my street car, three years ago, so I went out there and it was really interesting, and very scary, because, you know, you’re trying to learn something that’s inherently dangerous—but I really enjoyed it. After completing a 3 day race school last year, I’m now racing against people who’ve been doing this for decades; I’ve done 6 or 7 races now and made it to the podium in 3. I qualified to do the national championship winner-take-all race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is one of, if not the, most famous tracks in the world, so I’m really excited for that.

“There’s an element of risk to it, but at this point it’s like learning an instrument, a sport, or eye surgery. You’re constantly taking in information and tweaking things, and it’s a skill you’re continuously trying to improve—and to me that’s what’s fun. So even though I enjoy it, it’s still just a hobby.

“The thing that really makes me happy is that I got permission from the UI to put the Hawkeye on the car, the quintessential University of Iowa symbol, and I have the Vision Research as the primary sponsor on the car, even though they’re not giving me anything to do this. Every race people ask me about the research that we do and what’s going on at Iowa, and it’s great to be able to share our work with them and how it can impact them now and in the future. People come from all over the country to these races and some of them are broadcast on TV and/or streamed on the internet, so it’s really cool to bring something I do every day at work to my hobby.”

What are the benefits of that kind of exposure?

“Now with social media, when I can put up a picture of my car and have the people around me with our custom race shirts on, they get to see Institute of Vision Research and the Hawkeye logo, which draws new people in and generates interest to Iowa and our research that wasn’t necessarily there before.”

How did you get interested in racing cars?

Sohn racing

“I had zero interest in racing cars as a kid. I always liked doing things fast though, like riding my bike, as I never liked walking; I just had to get places fast. I had interacted with Buddy Lazier, a former Indy racer, and the only race he does every year is the Indy 500 because he’s older now. I’d say a big part of getting into racing was just interacting with him and having him encourage me to stop using my normal street car and buy a race car because it’s much safer and cheaper. I don’t really watch racing that much due to time constraints, so it’s just about getting out there and being able to do it. It wasn’t something that I dreamed of doing when I was little or anything, but I’m still young so am taking advantage of that.”

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