“Academia has created opportunities that I never thought I'd have”
Rupal Lovell-Patel, academic lead for vision sciences at the University of Central Lancashire, on her beginnings in Kenya and launching a new eye care clinic with a dual purpose
13 November 2021
When I was 16 my older sister was looking for a university course, and the standard was medicine, pharmacy or dentistry.I was looking at her prospectus, and I saw optometry at the back. I thought it was interesting, so I suggested she consider that course, which she did. When it was my turn, I opted to go for the same.
I was born and brought up in Kenya, and I'd only ever been to the optician once. Eye care wasn't regular, because everything is private. Only people that needed to go would go. My dad was short-sighted, and he’d go regularly for eye tests. I knew of the profession, but I wasn't that aware of it.
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Bradford, as an international student, and then my pre-reg was in Hertfordshire, at Boots Optician in Bishop Stortford.
When I was a third-year student, I enjoyed helping out the first years. That interest, in helping others learn from my experience and sharing my approach to things to help others, was already there.
During my pre-reg I attended student clinics at the Institute of Optometry at Elephant and Castle on Thursday evenings.
It was good to see the slightly different things that the Institute was offering, and it opened my eyes to things like binocular vision issues and reading difficulties, tinted spectacles, overlays, and things like that. That was my first exposure to that sub-speciality in optics.At the institute we saw a broad mix of people, many of whom were there to attend specialist contact lens or binocular vision clinics, so I saw more that I had at the High Street practice, which was more about eye tests and spectacle dispensing. I was lucky enough that my supervisor in practice had a lot of rigid gas permeable contact lens patients too, so I saw some of that during my pre-reg, which was more than most people would have. It was a nice, varied pre-reg.I was still interested in general optometry, especially the clinical side: different tests, how can we screen people better, how we can make the data more useful – things like that.
After my pre-reg, I went back to Bradford as a graduate teaching assistant for four years, and then I joined Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge as an academic.
I was involved in research, which was population-based: data collection and things like that, as well as teaching.
In 2004 the pre-qualifying exams (PQEs) were being held at Anglia Ruskin, and they wanted people to help direct students. Afterwards, I was asked if I wanted to join the group of examiners. I said yes, I wanted to be involved. I see the students once they've finished their degree, and then they go into the pre-reg year. It's seeing the outcome of what we provided in education and training, once they’re fully registered. During that final examiner assessment, it is good to see where they have got to. It’s a good way to keep engaged with the students all the way through their journey.
My favourite aspect of working with students is when they can see things making sense; when all the pieces fall into place and the puzzle is now complete
Winning the AOP's Lecturer of the Year in 2014 was a huge honour, because the students nominated me and voted.
Because it's student led, it's an honour as an educator to be recognised, and to be seen as going above and beyond what your job is. When students appreciate the effort you've gone through, that is a massive honour.
I was in Cambridge for 16 years. It was a long time, but I was able to see how optometry education has developed, with moves to incorporate the new technologies while also focusing on pathology and diagnostic work.
In 2018, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) approached me directly.
They had a different approach for how they wanted the training for dispensing opticians and optometrists to be, which piqued my interest It’s blended learning. People are still in the workplace, so they're earning while they're learning. It gives people who might not have thought they could have a professional career the chance to do that.
I've learnt over the years that actually students want things to be different. They often want to be at home, or near home, so they have family support while studying, rather than being away for three or four years.
There are also colleagues who work in the optical industry, who maybe ended up there because the first job they found was as an optical assistant, and they now want to get a professional qualification in the sector. But they're committed to a job, they have family commitments; they can't leave work for a three-year, full-time course. This was a way to help them achieve that, and that appealed to me.
My favourite aspect of working with students is when they can see things making sense; when all the pieces fall into place and the puzzle is now complete.
It's that moment, when they experience that, that brings the greatest joy - that you have helped someone achieve their dreams, and they can see how all the hard work they've put together has come to a point where it makes sense to them.
The main aim of our new eye clinic at UCLan is to be a teaching centre for our students, but hopefully it can also be a point of training and education for the local optometry community.
It is for those who are training to join the profession, but it’s also an education training centre for eye care professionals in the region – not just optometrists and dispensing options, but ophthalmic nurses or technicians who want to learn a skill. We support that, and are putting in continuing professional development programmes for those people too.
Optometry opens doors, and then you end up going in different directions and lots of other opportunities come up
The secondary purpose is to be a service to the public around Preston. We'll provide eye care: eye tests, contact lens fitting, dry eye assessments, visual stress assessments, colorimetry. We have an eye tracker and sports vision kit. This will hopefully have a supplementary impact on the health economy of the region. We want to fulfil a dual purpose: as a training education centre and a service to the people of Preston and Lancashire at the same time.
I have many highlights.
Academia has created opportunities that I never thought I'd have. I’ve managed to go to lots of different countries for conferences, presenting research, and have helped other colleagues develop their curriculum. One of the trips I did was with the charity Addenbrooke's Abroad (now Cambridge Global Health Partnerships), to bring refraction into the ophthalmic nurse curriculum in Botswana. That was 2017. Later that year I went to Ethiopia and Zambia, to look at training and education needs as part of a Vision Aid Overseas project.
It's given me a chance to give something back, not just to the students, but to be involved in charitable works that help the rest of the world in developing their eye care professionals. It's about building a country's capacity, and how we can support development. Using what I've learned as an academic in the UK and trying to translate it elsewhere, I think, is helpful. That is an ongoing highlight.
Optometry opens doors, and then you end up going in different directions and lots of other opportunities come up.
It's opened me up to a completely different world to what I expected when I started the degree. I would tell students to let it lead you places you never thought it would.