My introduction to optometry and how it became my career is a two-tiered approach. My father was a dispensing optician and contact lens optician by experience, having worked in the profession before the Opticians Act came into force. He owned several practices in Scotland and therefore growing up I was always aware of optics in the background. However, I never took an active interest at that stage.
I studied applied mathematics at the University of St Andrews and after I graduated I began working part-time at my father’s practice. I worked as an unqualified dispenser, during which time my interest in optics grew. When unusual patient cases arose, I would speak in-depth with the optometrist about them. I quickly became fascinated by the clinical aspect of optics, which whet my appetite for a change in direction and I later enrolled at Aston University to become an optometrist.
While I was enrolled on Aston’s BSc (Hons) Optometry programme, the university launched a Masters in Optometry and I transferred across onto that course. Completing the Masters gave me an extra depth of clinical knowledge. While it was certainly more challenging than the BSc course, trying to balance a degree with the pre-reg year, overall it was of great benefit to me professionally. When it came to the visits and assessments during the pre-reg, I didn’t have as many struggles as some of my peers on the BSc course had. This was in the main due to the extra depth covered in the Masters.
After qualifying, I continued working in the Hampshire-based independent practice where I completed my pre-reg training. The practice and its focus on the clinical aspects of optometry is what I found particularly interesting. It was one of the first practices to do specialist dry eye treatment, as well as be involved in community glaucoma care, referral refinement and monitoring. It was also one of the first to be involved in the PEARS scheme.
"The concept can be as technical as colour perception or as hands-on direct ophthalmoscopy, but whichever the situation, when you see a student have that epiphany moment, it is very rewarding"
My Masters launched me towards the research facet of clinical practice, but I didn’t think about academia until it popped on my radar a couple of years later. The optometrist owner of the practice where I worked had taken on an advisory role to the University of Portsmouth when it was working towards establishing an optometry course, and when a position was advertised he suggested I apply.
I moved into academia for two main reasons. The first is that I thought it was an excellent opportunity to try to positively influence the future of optometric care at a time when organisations had begun openly discussing the challenges that the profession is facing. The second is the flexibility that academia offers. As well as carrying out my day-to-day role, both organisational and teaching, I can still work in practice at the weekend, as well as undertake research in both environments.
I’ve been a senior lecturer in optometry at the University of Portsmouth for just over 18 months. My typical day depends on whether it is in term or out of term time. Within term time, I will be planning for teaching sessions that I’m running that day, as well as completing day-to-day paperwork. Outside of term time, my general 9–5 involves arranging things for the programme going forward. As a new course that is yet to run a full cycle, there is always something that needs to be organised.
The most rewarding aspect of my current role is when you are teaching a complex concept to students and the moment that it clicks and they understand what you are saying. The concept can be as technical as colour perception or as hands-on as direct ophthalmoscopy, but whichever the situation, when you see a student have that epiphany moment, it is very rewarding.
A career highlight for me goes back to during my pre-reg placement when I had the opportunity to take part in an aid mission with Returning Vision. I travelled to Romania with a group of six to seven others and in just under a week we tested the sight and dispensed spectacles to around 1500 people. It was a great experience to be able to help people in an environment where they have limited resources for eye care. Hopefully, I will be able to do more of this in the future, while also encouraging Portsmouth students to take part in something similar.
Looking to the future, in the short-medium term I’m involved in setting up the optometry programme. However, I’ve also started a part-time PhD exploring visual problems associated with a stroke.
The university is very supportive of the development of employees and from the moment the optometry staff arrived, it was very keen to set us on a pathway of training to achieve a certificate in higher education. That is the great thing about the University of Portsmouth as an institution – it seeks skilled clinicians to instruct on its programmes and then develops their teaching potential.
My Plan B
Having now had the experience of being an optometrist, for my plan B I would definitely always be in another healthcare role. What I enjoy about being an optometrist is the ability to help patients, as well as the problem-solving aspect of it. The patient comes in with a problem, you run various tests during your examination, and you find a potential solution for that patient.