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The Eyes Have It

A proud scientist, engineer, doctor, & dad

DAVID PAO ’65 had just finished kindergarten in Nanking, China, when his father received an overseas assignment—requiring Pao to repeat the school year in the United States

“I wonder if that affected my psyche,” he jokes, but moving between cultures gave him a unique perspective throughout his education.

Initially slated to go to MIT, Pao instead accepted a scholarship to study engineering at Swarthmore. The uniqueness of the College’s liberal arts education opened a different door entirely: Swarthmore allowed Pao an extra year to complete medical school requirements as well as his B.S. in electrical engineering.

Completing medical school at Columbia University and an internship at George Washington University, Pao pursued a residency in ophthalmology at Thomas Jefferson University–Wills Eye Hospital, inspired by his curiosity about his own near-sightedness and new technology in the field.

“Initially, I was a very rare person there, the only engineer among 125 medical students,” he says, “but engineering lends itself to ophthalmology, since it includes physics, optics, and measurement.”

Today a clinical associate professor in private practice at Jefferson University–Wills Eye, Pao holds six patents and has developed numerous instruments, including a bipolar cautery to seal microscopic vessels and an electrophysiological system to measure electrical signals from the eye and brain. He also advocates for bipartisan patient-protection legislation.

“Swarthmore reinforced my moral and ethical commitment to society,” says Pao. A former president and current board member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ophthalmology and the Bucks County Medical Society, he has served on numerous committees of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Pao is now turning his attention to plasma, the ionized gas referred to as the fourth state of matter. (The sun and lightning are examples of hot plasma; fluorescent bulbs, certain TV screens, and ozone water treatment are examples of cold.)

“The field of plasma medicine is unlimited,” he says. “We are at the same point as when Benjamin Franklin discovered what could be done with electricity without being electrocuted. We must encourage researchers to explore this area—the United States has only 10 plasma medicine departments, whereas Asia and Europe have more than 50—and counting.”

He’s working on refining a handheld medical plasma probe, to be produced this year. Among his key colleagues are Greg Fridman and Justine Han of Drexel’s plasma medicine department; Ralph Eagle of Wills Eye Hospital; and ophthalmologist daughter Kristina Pao ’04.

“Kristina and I experienced unique father-daughter bonding with time spent in the operating room performing eye surgery,” he says.

He’s proud of her—and of all his fellow family alumni. In addition to Kristina, they include his other daughters, Jennifer ’01 and Tiffany ’06; sons-in-law Thomas Mather ’00 and Paul Thibodeau ’06; brother Peter ’53; and great-nephew James ’13.

With the success other countries have had with improving their antisepsis, wound-healing, cancer treatments, and even crop yields thanks to plasma, Pao’s hoping that his family’s Swarthmore bond pays off in other ways, too.

“I foresee us plasma researchers collaborating with the Scott Arboretum,” he laughs, “to grow the world’s largest leafy plant for agriculture and medicine!”