Meet Dr. M.E. Hartnett

The first Michael F. Marmor, M.D., Professor in Retinal Science and Diseases

(From L-R) Drs. Michael F. Marmor, M.E. Hartnett, Jane Marmor, and Jeffrey Goldberg stand for a photo at Hartnett's welcome reception.

WHEN MARY ELIZABETH (M.E.) HARTNETT, MD, arrived this year at the Byers Eye Institute, she brought with her a buzz of excitement that rippled through Stanford University and the international ophthalmology community.  

The esteemed clinician-scientist moved from her post at the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah to the Byers Eye Institute in February to be the inaugural Michael F. Marmor, M.D., Professor in Retinal Science and Diseases. The endowed professorship is named for the first chairman of Stanford University’s Ophthalmology department, Michael Marmor, MD, who is now professor emeritus of ophthalmology.

Hartnett specializes in pediatric retina and is regarded worldwide as one of the leading clinicians, surgeons, and scientists in the area. She is growing pediatric retina services—an often-underserved part of vision care—as the director of Pediatric Retina at the Byers Eye Institute and Stanford Medical Children’s Health.

In the lab, Hartnett’s research team is focused on developing new treatments for retinal vascular diseases from uncontrolled blood vessel growth in the eye.

When blood vessel growth—or angiogenesis—is uncontrolled, it can lead to serious diseases, including those that are major causes of blindness at every stage in life. Among those diseases are retinopathy of prematurity, which affects premature infants; diabetic retinopathy, which can affect people struggling with high blood sugar; and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is most often found among patients 50 years or older. That means Hartnett’s research applies to a large portion of the population at all ages.

“I was overjoyed to welcome Dr. Hartnett to the Byers Eye Institute this year, and already she is doing great things in her research and for her patients,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, MD, PhD, the Blumenkranz Smead professor and chair of ophthalmology at the Byers Eye Institute.

In the world of academia, being awarded an endowed professorship is one of the highest honors a university can bestow upon a professor. On top of her endowed professorship at Stanford, Hartnett has received many prestigious awards, served on committees for leading ophthalmology nonprofits, published over 230 peer-reviewed articles, and authored more than 40 book chapters. In fact, she wrote the first-ever academic texbook on pediatric retina, which is now in its third edition.

Hartnett is also the director of Women’s Eye Health, an initiative and website that raises awareness about eye care and the disparities in the rate of eye disease that women face.

Despite her long list of achievements as a clinician, scientist, educator, and author, those who have met Hartnett know that she carries herself with a disarming air of modesty.

Sitting at her new desk, dwarfed by a nearby tower of books, and flanked by boxes of mementos and awards waiting to be unpacked into their new California home, Hartnett remembers when Goldberg first called about her new position last year.

“Jeff and I had met over the years at scientific meetings, and when he called, I thought he would ask about recommendations to fill the pediatric retina position that recently opened,” she said. “We met, and he said, ‘We want you,’ and that was a surprise. Given how strong the department is already, I felt really honored. I also believe in the value and growth of clinician-scientists. This was part of Jeff’s mission and the vision of Dr. Marmor.”

But Hartnett may have been the only person surprised that she was the one sought out for the prestigious professorship at the Byers Eye Institute because she was an obvious first choice for the position, Goldberg says.

“Very few people have the expertise we were looking for, and I knew with this endowed professorship we had the chance to recruit the very best,” Goldberg said. “I knew early on that Dr. Hartnett was the right one for the job.”

Indeed, the requirements for the professorship seem to fit Hartnett’s skills perfectly.

Marmor’s goal when he drew up the details for the professorship in his name was to help the Byers Eye Institute attract the best in the field and fill in any gaps in the department. In his vision, the ideal candidate would have a significant background in retina research—a topic that has been a major part of Marmor’s own life’s work. He hoped that the future professor would also have an established history of merging clinical expertise with scientific inquiry.

“The sense that I have is that the clinician-scientist is still the most powerful type of faculty for an academic department to advance its purposes,” Marmor said in an interview this year. “This professorship is an aide to our department to recruit faculty where we had a gap. It allowed us to seek a clinician-scientist who will contribute new knowledge about the retina and retinal disease and use that knowledge to further the care of patients. We have not had a dedicated pediatric retinal specialist, and the endowment helped us to fill that need."

Dr. M.E. Hartnett mentors a researcher in her lab.

Marmor, who helped establish ophthalmology as its own department at Stanford nearly 40 years ago, trained at the NIH in neurophysiology and served as chair of the Byers Eye Institute from 1984 to 1992. During his almost 50-year career as an ophthalmologist and physiologist, Marmor has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and half a dozen books about the retina while also making a long list of contributions both to the clinical and research worlds.

He has also written three books about art and the eye, including one released in 2023 called "The Artistic Eye," which features fine art and shows how knowledge about vision can change how one appreciates it. Those who have done any sightseeing around San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf area may also have seen Marmor’s name atop the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye.

All of that may sound like a big legacy to uphold for anyone who holds the Michael F. Marmor, M.D. Professor in Retinal Science and Diseases, but Goldberg is confident that Hartnett is up to the task.

“Dr. Hartnett’s arrival fulfills Dr. Marmor’s vision,” Goldberg said. “As she embarks on her journey in this new role, the field of retina research stands to benefit greatly from her expertise and dedication.”

Already, Hartnett is seeing patients, publishing papers, and growing her new laboratory research team at the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford. She is approaching her role with a vision to answer every question with discovery.

“At Stanford, I can see much of what is needed and what we can create,” she said. “Bridging the best of science and the best of clinical care are unique opportunities to help our patients and patients everywhere.”

Janice is a web and communications specialist for the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford.