“I have always been driven by wanting to know more”
Recognising research excellence: Professor James Wolffsohn
27 February 2023
When Professor James Wolffsohn was considering career options as a teenager, he knew that he wanted to embark on a scientific career that would see him apply theory in practice.
After mulling over teaching and engineering, Wolffsohn decided to explore optometry as a potential career.
“My mother told me that when I was younger I went to the optometrist and really enjoyed it,” he told OT.
Wolffsohn completed work experience at the optometry practice of a friend’s father.
“I thought ‘This is something that will keep me amused for a few years’ and then I will go and do something totally different afterwards,” he shared.
Three decades after that revelation while opening the post and making cups of tea in a south London optometry practice, Wolffsohn continues to be captivated by the challenges, opportunities and unanswered questions that a career in optometry holds.
A varied work life has seen Wolffsohn publish more than 300 peer-reviewed research papers spanning a diverse range of subject areas – from myopia management and dry eye disease to intraocular lenses and ophthalmic instrumentation.
I will rarely turn down a collaborative proposal if there is an opportunity to make a difference to evidence-based clinical practice
Wolffsohn was the recipient of the Recognising research excellence award on Sunday (26 February) at the Excellence in eye care event, hosted by the AOP.
“I was very surprised and truly honoured. It is lovely to have your research recognised,” he shared.
Wolffsohn, who is head of the school of optometry at Aston University, shared with OT that when students ask him a question, he always wants to be able to provide an answer that is backed by evidence.
Much of his career has been spent interrogating the science that supports the way optometrists practice.
“I have always been driven by wanting to know more,” he told OT.
“I think research is important because you want healthcare professionals to be working at the cutting edge and using techniques that are proven to work without bias.”
His first experience of research occurred during his pre-reg placement at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
“They had a project on automatic teller machines – bank machines were fairly new and we were working for a major bank on the optimum colour combinations for people with visual impairment,” Wolffsohn said.
He went on to complete his doctorate in ocular motor research at Cardiff University, before travelling to Australia to work as a researcher at the University of Melbourne.
During this time, Wolffsohn continued to work in practice and would fly into the outback to provide low vision services to remote communities.
Since returning to Aston University in 2000, he has worked in a variety of different academic roles – including as head of department across three different disciplines.
“I will rarely turn down a collaborative proposal if there is an opportunity to make a difference to evidence-based clinical practice,” Wolffsohn said.
He is also passionate about ensuring that scientific discoveries result in tangible change for patients. Three spin-out companies have been developed on the basis of research Wolffsohn contributed to at Aston University.
Alongside his research and academic roles, Wolffsohn continues to work a half-day in clinic each week.
“That is a driving factor because you can then apply the techniques you have developed. You can learn from patients about their frustrations and what they want which leads to the next set of research,” he said.
Wolffsohn has played an influential role in spearheading consensus among the profession on evolving scientific fields, from myopia management to dry eye disease.
He led the diagnostic committee for the Tear Film & Ocular Surface Society DEWS II report and led white paper reports in myopia for the International Myopia Institute and the British Contact Lens Association.
“It is about reaching a consensus and disseminating knowledge. The danger with research is that it can be hidden in a journal,” Wolffsohn shared.
Wolffsohn believes that this work has the potential to make a real difference for practitioners.
“One person can’t know everything – that ability when a patient asks you something, to very quickly be able to look at the research in that area and find a consensus view of where we are up to and where we are going has been great,” he said.
Leading departments has given Wolffsohn the opportunity to envisage change and then work with others to achieve that transformation.
“It is rewarding working with a dedicated team of staff who are passionate about their subject and the future of it – we focus on how to create the next generation of professionals who can take the field even further than we were able to,” he shared.
Professor James Wolffsohn received the AOP’s Recognising research excellence award at the AOP Excellence in eye care reception, headline sponsored by CooperVision and hosted on the Sunborn Yacht, London on 26 February. The award was sponsored by Lloyd & Whyte.