My inspiration

Discovering new opportunities in optometry

Qualified dispensing optician and optometry student, Zara Cowell, talks to OT  about how her optometry lecturer inspired and supported her throughout her optometry studies


Who is your inspiration and can you tell us more about them?

There are many people in my professional career that have inspired, supported, and mentored me. My biggest inspiration is optometry senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Marie-Laure Orr.

Orr is one of those rare people you meet in life; knowing that without them you wouldn’t be the same person you were before. She brings out the best in her students by encouraging them to embrace challenges and turn them into strengths. She also has a wealth of experience in both community settings bringing a dynamic, unique and refreshing edge to teaching.

Can you remember when you first met Marie-Laure Orr and what were your first impressions?

When I first met Orr she exuded a warmth and passion for optometry that made me smile. I remember being engrossed in the way she taught practical skills in the labs because she was so enthusiastic.

Retinoscopy is one of my strongest skills, which I attribute to her and her support


My first impression of her was someone who I could talk to both personally and professionally, and an optometrist I aspired to be like. In the early days of my studies, I really struggled with retinoscopy and felt I was behind other students. Orr spoke to me and told me I should never compare myself to others. Instead she told me to reflect on how much I had grown and celebrate that. Now retinoscopy is one of my strongest skills, which I attribute to her and her support.

Why did you decide to study optometry?

Zara wearing a face mask
I have worked closely with some amazing optometrists in my practice during the COVID-19 pandemic, which certainly influenced my decision. Witnessing the care and difference that these optometrists made to patients every day, alongside supporting our local Hospital Eye Service, was a key driving factor in my decision to study optometry.

As a qualified dispensing optician the course at UCLan allowed me to study and remain in employment which was another reason that led me to studying optometry at this university. I’m the type of person who learns more effectively in a hands on way and the course offered this. I believe the optical industry is evolving, so becoming an optometrist will allow me to be part of this evolution. Being able to offer patients the best care and support, while also supporting the NHS by managing more patients in practice, would be very rewarding.

Did she play a part in your university experience studying optometry or shape any of your career choices?

She has been a huge part of my experience studying optometry. I always look forward to our block weeks at university, where I can catch up with her and go over practical skills. When I’m not at university she is still there to support me over email or on video calls, offering advice or mentoring to myself and the other students. Her passion for the subject motivates me to delve deeper and explore my knowledge gaps.

She taught me that individuality is something to celebrate. Optometry is about communication and patient care, not about following the same steps as everyone else


What attributes do you most admire about her?

I admire how fun, non-judgemental, and genuine she is. She has never made me feel uncomfortable about asking questions about something that I feel I should know. She is true to herself, and she inspires the same in others. She puts wellbeing before anything else which I think is key to how she brings out the best in me and the other students. She also reminds me that it’s okay to sometimes say ‘I am struggling’ and to take time to focus on myself to ensure I achieve the best results.

I also admire how helpful and supportive she can be. She encouraged me to get involved with Johnson & Johnson Vision Care’s Success Through Education Programme and I have now secured a place on their pre-registration programme. Thanks to her support I feel even more confident with contact lenses.

Is there a field within optometry that she excels in?

Orr excels in contact lenses and low vision. I still struggle to understand how she knows the vast amount that she does. Myopia management is one area where she has inspired me to research more, and I really enjoy.

Can you share one thing you’ve learnt from her?

She taught me that individuality is something to celebrate. Optometry is about communication and patient care, not about following the same steps as everyone else.

She encouraged me to get as much exposure to all the different kinds of optical equipment and tools and choose some that I would use as part of my routine. For example, using 20D and a direct ophthalmoscope isn’t something everyone would use but I enjoy it. I could see how it would be useful in practice which she encouraged me to continue to develop. Ultimately, she taught me that as an optometrist we all have the same end result, we just get there in our own way.

I remember being engrossed in the way she taught practical skills in the labs because she was so enthusiastic


What advice has she given you about your future career?

She has told me and other students that we are all on a journey that doesn’t stop. Even now Orr is back learning as a student; she encourages this attitude towards learning and studying in others too. She also taught me that growth, self-development and reflection are important things to consider and will keep you engaged, ensuring your patients have access to the best care.

Is there anyone else that you would like to mention that has inspired you throughout your optometry career or studies?

Sean Buckley and Chris Shore, store directors in Specsavers, Preston, where I work, have been a huge support. Principal optometrist, Eimear Banks, has also been an amazing mentor helping me with my theory and practical skills.

Rupal Lovett-Patel, lead academic for vision sciences at UCLan, is an incredible optometrist and her advice and feedback during university has been invaluable.

Last, but by no means least, my fellow cohort of students, especially Katie Richardson, Luke Douglas and Fahmeeda Patel; without their support, I would have struggled. In them I have made friends for life.

If you could help inspire someone, what words of advice would you give to them?

Don’t be afraid to be terrible at something new. Learning is a journey and reflection is key. Reflecting demonstrates you can recognise how far you have come and reinforces growth and development. Set yourself small goals and celebrate achieving these. Be kind to yourself and practise, practise, practise. It will come.