“Every day that I’m in clinic I learn something new”
Third year optometry student at City, University of London, Thaksha Sritharan, talks to OT about the impact of COVID-19, being an international student, and the family members who inspired her career journey
02 May 2021
When did you first become aware of the profession?I first became aware of the profession during my first eye exam when I was 13 years old. I dragged my family to the optometrist because I thought it was bizarre that we had never had an eye exam before. At the end of the appointment my vision was great, however my brother, who was 10 at the time, could barely see the big letter ‘E’. I didn’t understand why he was struggling to read a letter that I saw so clearly, and I even remember laughing and telling him to be serious because I thought he was faking it. I didn’t believe him because he never once complained about his eyesight. This is when I realised the importance of getting your eyes routinely checked, especially as kids, as a lot of the time, they don’t know any better.
What were the main reasons you wanted to become an optometrist?After the outcome of my brothers’ first eye exam, I really wanted to help encourage and push the importance of regular eye exams.
I chose optometry because I always knew I wanted to be in a field that involved patient care and I took part in volunteer roles within the health and patient care field that confirmed this. I was interested in the visual part of healthcare when I realised there’s more to it than meets the eye. Our eyes not only help us see, but they are vital in our learning, behaviour and communication, to name a few.
I think to some degree we all understand the relationship between eyes and communication now more than ever, because although we’re all wearing masks, we can still deduce when someone is smiling due to their eyes. I think that’s amazing.
I believe vision is such an important sense and it’s a precious gift to see the beauty around us. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about such a vital and complex organ.
Who influenced or inspired the decision to go into optometry?As a little girl, I didn’t see my grandpa very often. When I did see him, he would sit me down beside him and tell me that I should be an eye ‘specialist’ so that one day I could check his eyes. That was the first seed planted in my head that got me thinking about optometry.
My friends and family also supported me so much through this journey and still continue to do so. They even threw me a surprise going away and congratulations party before I started my optometry journey. My parents especially thought it was a great career path for me and they believed the job offered a lot of work-life balance, and that’s something that is really important to me.
I think to some degree we all understand the relationship between eyes and communication now more than ever, because although we’re all wearing masks, we can still deduce when someone is smiling due to their eyes
What placements have you carried out, and what have you learned from them?Last summer I worked with Dr Pink Sidhu and her team at Weston Eyecare in Toronto. This experience was so valuable, and I was able to work alongside a hardworking and intelligent practitioner. I was able to take away so many useful tips and tricks from her. The timing of this experience was also very beneficial because it took place before I started to examine patients in clinics during third year, so this really helped my confidence.
As a part of our third year, I’ve had the chance to examine patients in the primary care clinics, contact lens clinics, and binocular vision and paediatric clinics at City Sight. This experience has been so beneficial to my learning. Every day that I’m in clinic I learn something new about the eyes and eye examinations, being a professional in the field, and overall, how to put everything together to be the best practitioner I can be for my future patients. I appreciate all the feedback and advice that I receive from all my supervisors, as it’s so helpful.
I’ve also had the chance to observe some clinics at Moorfields Eye Hospital such as the medical retina clinic, and emergency clinic. I’ve observed some really interesting cases and saw interesting pathologies such as granular corneal dystrophy and macular holes.
What are your expectations of the pre-registration year and how are you planning to prepare?
I am very excited to start my pre-registration placement at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and to learn in a multidisciplinary environment, under very highly qualified clinicians. I’m really enjoying the eye disease module at university and my placement at Moorfields Eye Hospital has been very intriguing, so I know I will really value this hospital placement.
I expect pre-reg to be a very intense year, but also a very opportunistic year where I will learn so much. I am planning to prepare by taking a breather before I start, and to review my anatomy and the fundamental basics of eye exams. I find that everything comes back to the basics, and I hope to be confident with the fundamentals so that I have a strong foundation to build on when heading into my pre-reg year.
Can you tell us about your optometry-focused Instagram account, Thaksha Sees? What led you to set it up and what do you aim to achieve through the account?
Once I got accepted to optometry school in the UK, I searched social media platforms to see if I could find a current international/optometry student studying in the UK as I was interested in their experiences, but I couldn’t find any. That’s when the idea first sparked in my head, but I thought as a first year, with limited knowledge, I wouldn’t be much help.After overcoming all the adjustment struggles and making it into second year, I really wanted to share my knowledge and my tips to other students who may find themselves in my position. I wanted to be available for people to reach out and talk to. I also wanted to educate the community about the importance of eye exams and the importance of eyecare in general. So, with a leap of faith I started @thaksha_sees on Instagram.
Through this platform, I hope to continue to share my journey as a student and prospective eyecare practitioner while helping other students who may be interested in the optometry field as well.
What are your career goals?I really enjoy the eye disease lectures at university and the hospital placements at Moorfields Eye Hospital, so I hope to continue on the route to becoming a hospital optometrist. I would definitely like to obtain additional qualifications such as independent prescribing and maybe even a glaucoma qualification. I enjoy learning and I believe as a clinician, you are constantly learning and becoming a better practitioner for your patients. I also want to continue educating the community about eye care through my social media platforms.
What’s next for you?On social media I hope to post more educational videos about the eyes and eye care. I’m also looking forward to sharing my experience as a pre-registration optometrist at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital.
What has the experience of studying optometry as an international student been like?It’s been challenging and rewarding at the same time. There were so many differences that I had to adjust to academically, environmentally and socially. Academically, although I completed a university degree in Canada, I found university was structured differently in the UK. It is normal for one exam to contribute 70% of a module mark in the UK, whereas in Toronto, the highest weighting exam I ever had contributed to 50% of a module mark. Therefore, exams felt like more pressure to me because they were weighted more for each module.
As an international student, I know exactly how hard it is to not see your loved ones. However, technology is such a powerful tool and it’s a great way to stay in touch
Environmentally, it took me quite some time to get used to crossing the streets since the roads and cars drive on the opposite side in the UK compared to Canada. Even to this day, I have to think twice whilst crossing the street. I also had a hard time adjusting to all my new living responsibilities, on top of adjusting my study habits so that they were more efficient.
Socially, I was surprised by all the slang that my friends and classmates used while talking. A lot of times, in the beginning, I had no idea what they were saying. I was also pleasantly surprised by the range of British accents that I heard because I expected everyone to sound like the actors in Harry Potter. I was naïve.
Even with all the challenges and differences, I’ve been very fortunate to have friends and other international students in my course who were going through similar things as me. I’m very grateful that my personal tutor Penny D’ath introduced us, supported and still continues to support me throughout my studies. I also have family in the UK, and they have done so much to support my learning as well.
Besides all the differences, exploring and living in London has been a great adventure and I can’t wait to see more of the UK once it’s safe to do so again.
Studying in lockdown
How has the coronavirus outbreak impacted your course and what adjustments has your university made for lectures and assessments? How have you had to adapt?Similar to other universities all our lectures have moved online, and we have a combination of synchronous and asynchronous lectures. Now that we’re all passed the “you’re still muted” phase, I actually don’t mind the online lectures. We can do the lectures in our own time and I personally like to slightly speed up the lectures and re-listen to certain parts.
What were the main challenges of the university course before COVID-19, and what challenges has the outbreak added?One of my biggest challenges of university before COVID-19 was how to balance time – especially as a student who is living for the first time in a different country. However, I learned a lot after my first year of university, and was more adjusted to my surroundings.
The challenges the outbreak has added is that, understandably, our clinics aren’t as full and therefore we don’t always see many patients in our clinics. Schedules aren’t as readily available since often things are being adjusted as we go along. I also miss the social experience of university and it’s unfortunate that we will not experience a traditional graduation ceremony this year.
Another challenge I face as an international student is the anxiety around travelling back home during my breaks. In addition, I have to self-isolate when I go back home and when I return back to the UK. This is time consuming since the reason I go back is to spend quality time with my family and friends.
Has the coronavirus outbreak affected any plans regarding placements or experience?Our clinics have been adjusted so that we are in clinics for two weeks and then the next two weeks we only have online classes. At first, I found that there were a couple setbacks with my eye exam progress as I wasn’t continuously in clinics. However, now I find that once I get started, the routine comes back more naturally. The supervisors have also really supported us and encouraged us to be more confident.
Since we are currently under a lockdown, understandably we are not seeing as many patients as we did in the start of the term. In these situations, we use the time to do simulated patient scenarios. Unfortunately, our Moorfields placements have also been postponed under the current restrictions.