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"Good light is so important!"

Research in gene therapy being done by geneticist Rajendra Kumar-Singh at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences may one day save the sight of countless people facing vision loss or blindness.

Fittingly, his lab has a great view. Sunlight streams through the large windows of the research space on the seventh floor of the South Cove Building that looks out on Chinatown and the high-rises of State Street. “Good light is so important!” the vision researcher exclaims.

“When we recruit, we show people this space as a good working environment,” said Kumar-Singh, an associate professor of ophthalmology. “I would like to think that people are happy and that this makes them want to be at work. A good working environment makes people more creative, and creativity is very important in science.”

Expanding space for research is one of the top fundraising priorities at the School of Medicine. Kumar-Singh’s is among the new labs in the renovated South Cove and adjoining buildings that compose Tufts’ biomedical research and public health complex on Harrison Avenue in Boston.

In the past few years these one-time garment factories bordering Chinatown and the South End have been transformed into hubs of cutting-edge research in neuroscience, microbiology and, in the case of Kumar-Singh, gene therapy in the area of eye disorders.

The Kumar-Singh Lab’s research into age-related macular degeneration targets a common cause of blindness among the elderly, affecting one in four people in the United States over the age of 65.

“In the United States, 8.5 million people suffer from macular degeneration, and this number is getting larger with the aging of the population,” he said. “For 90 percent of patients, no treatment currently is available. We have developed a treatment here in the lab to treat the 90 percent, and are raising funds to bring it to clinical trials in humans.

“If we can solve this, we will prevent millions of people from going blind,” he said.

In recent years, Kumar-Singh’s lab has benefited from the generosity of the Ellison Foundation. Their philanthropy has accelerated his work on gene therapy to treat age-related macular degeneration, paving the way for clinical trials.

Support from benefactors like the Ellison Foundation has laid the necessary groundwork for success, and the research already is paying dividends: The U.S. Department of Defense recently awarded the lab a $1 million grant in support of related work that one day may help save the vision of soldiers whose eyes have been injured.

“This time at Tufts has been the most productive time of my career,” said Kumar-Singh, interviewed recently at his laboratory on Level Seven of the South Cove Building. His lab currently has eight people and recently advertised for two more postdocs.

What makes a productive workspace? “Having big windows and light are not the top priorities,” Kumar-Singh observed. “What is most important is a collegial, collaborative environment with access to colleagues and to shared resources.” These things Tufts provides in abundance, he said.

"The research environment and collaborative spirit at Tufts rank highly amongst the institutions I've worked at," said Siobhan Cashman, assistant professor of ophthalmology and a member of Kumar-Singh’s lab.

Lab member Derek Leaderer commented: “Here we know what’s happening in the other labs, and help each other with the equipment. Instead of worrying they might get scooped, people are extremely helpful.”

An M.D./Ph.D. student who has completed two years of medical school and now is entering his second year of grad school for his doctorate, part of a program of study that could stretch eight years, Leaderer has been at Tufts long enough to appreciate the transformation underway on the medical campus.

“The first summer I rotated here, the neuroscience lab did not exist—it was just beams and a concrete floor,” he said, referring to the thousands of square feet of research space renovated five levels below in the South Cove Building.

He cited other improvements made in his time here, from the “learning communities” and new gymnasium at the renovated Sackler Center to the facelift given the M&V complex.

“These spaces matter in terms of your mental happiness,” he said. “They may not be the most important things—but when you’re studying here at 10 on a Saturday night, they make a difference.”