Tell us about your background and what you did before embarking on your PhD?
After qualifying in 2001 as an optometrist in the UK, I decided to try many different things within the scope of optometry. I worked throughout the UK experiencing different types of independent and corporate clinical practice. During this period, I completed postgraduate diplomas in clinical optometry and therapeutics. My need for diversity and giving back to communities was met by travelling on several voluntary outreach projects in Africa providing spectacles, ophthalmic care, and teaching nurses basic refraction principles.
Later, I obtained a part-time position as a hospital optometrist conducting low-vision consultations, complex contact lens fitting and diabetic screening. At the same time, I also started a position as a professional affairs consultant for the contact lens industry which involved a lot of travel and delivering CPD to optometrists. This was the first spark that ignited my contact lens passion. I met my wife thanks to this role and we both decided to move to Australia in 2009 where I set up and managed a clinical practice in Sydney. I spent ten years in this practice involved in clinical, mentoring and leadership roles.
Why did you decide to do a PhD and what is your research about?
The year was 2020 and I was 40 years old – it was a sign to try something new. I was passionate about contact lenses but didn’t know much about the world of research and academia. I was successful with my scholarship application and was set up with a fantastic supervisory team of Scientia Associate Professor Nicole Carnt, Dr Kate Faasse and Professor Lisa Keay so I took the plunge, sold my practice, and embraced the full-time PhD lifestyle. I am interested in how to efficiently communicate health promotion messages and how to change habits in the field of contact lens compliance. I am currently running a randomised controlled trial using text message interventions to change the behaviour of contact lens wearers with the aim of increasing hygiene and reducing dropout (cessation). More hygienic wearers could mean a reduction of sight-threatening corneal infections.
What have you learnt that may be useful for anyone who is thinking about undertaking a research degree?
A PhD is a personal journey of self-discovery and self-motivation where the more you put in, the more you get out. I have found that research is extremely varied and involves using my brain in a problem-solving and creative way. It is a continual challenge and very different from day-to-day clinical activities in practice. Challenging myself keeps me young and ensures I am growing and learning new skills. My experience as an optometrist allows me to understand the translatable impact of research to everyday clinical life.
Ultimately a PhD is a small but new contribution to the world of science, and a chance to publish something unique and to leave a legacy. A PhD also opens doors to working in and around the university with options such as supervising undergraduate student projects, formal and casual teaching and research assistant positions. A final learning is that everything I do takes much longer than I expect it to take!
What do want to do when you grow up?
I’m still not sure what I want to do when I grow up - and that’s ok. I am lucky to have a multidisciplinary supervisory team which has allowed me to explore the psychology around behaviour change and habit creation. One of my plans is to use this learning and apply it to different fields of optometry and other health disciplines and to present it at conferences as a health behaviour change expert. I enjoy running my clinical trial and engaging with participants - this is translatable research that can be commercialised and impact the lives of clinicians and patients. I plan build my research profile and explore academia-industry collaborations.
After graduating from my undergraduate studies in Optometry, I worked for one and a half years in Parramatta in corporate optometry. During my undergraduate studies at UNSW, I had admired my Lecturers’ knowledge, wisdom, and insightfulness. So, it was a natural choice to undertake my PhD at UNSW.
In his speech to Stanford University, Steve Jobs said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
As a PhD candidate, you go into your candidature not entirely sure what life after graduation looks like or even whether the PhD project plan will work out, but you press forward knowing that future-you will be able to figure it out.
My PhD research at the Centre for Eye Health (CFEH) – supervised by Associate Professor Gordon Doig, Professor Michael Kalloniatis and Dr Angelica Ly – involves improving health literacy for patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD). AMD is a leading cause of irreversible central vision loss in Australia, affecting one in seven people over the age of fifty.
I was motivated by the disappointing observation that, although there are many interventions are available for patients with AMD, these interventions are often poorly understood because of low health literacy. Each instance of health literacy represents a missed opportunity for medical knowledge to benefit patients. This is why we will be developing and evaluating an educational program to improve health literacy with respect to AMD.
The PhD programme is teaching me how to be a scholar, and from what I have learnt so far, I believe that I would love to continue working as a scholar in an academic environment.
Research takes a lot of time and patience. Doing research work is a very different pace compared to working as an optometrist. You need a lot of time to think as a researcher. While there are things which you may need to tick off your “to-do” list that you hope to finish within a certain time frame, sometimes things may take longer than you expect to complete something. It’s all part of the learning process.
I graduated with an OD and a master’s degree in 2016 and 2018 from the School of Optometry, The University of Faisalabad, a renowned institute in Pakistan. Since 2016, I have been engaged in teaching and supervising research for both undergrad and postgrad students there. I have also been awarded two gold-medals from the Pakistan Optometry Society for outstanding excellence in academia.
During my bachelor’s research and contact lens course, I used to read work of Scientia Professor Fiona Stapleton. She has been my role-model from day one. Her contributions to the field of optometry are amazing. I have always wanted to be like her. The opportunity to work with her was my primary reason for undertaking a PhD at UNSW. And here I am, living my dream and doing my research with Scientia Professor Fiona Stapleton, Professor Eric Papas and Dr Jacqueline Tan-Showyin.
My father has been the biggest inspiration for me. Since my childhood, I have seen him working so hard for us. He promotes education and has always motivated his daughters to excel in their respective fields. What I really admire is his enthusiasm for life, and his ability to adapt quickly to changing conditions. I am extremely grateful for being his daughter, and I cannot thank him enough for everything. Maybe, by following his example in both my personal and professional life, I can pay back what he has given me. At least that is what I aspire to.
I am looking at the longitudinal changes of Meibomian Glands (MGs). These glands play a significant role in tear production by contributing lipids to the superficial tear film. Meibomian Gland Dysfunction destabilizes tears resulting in evaporative dry eye and is estimated to affect over 60% of the population. My research aims to devise and evaluate new clinically meaningful metrics for imaging the meibomian glands and relating these to variations in composition of lipids with the progression of disease.
Optics and diagnostic instruments were always my areas of expertise. Incorporating both areas of my expertise to look closely at the factors which contribute to dry eye disease motivated me to pursue this project. This research project will also provide insights into the eyelid response and will identify early biomarkers in MG morphology or composition. We will be able to reduce burdens and improve the quality of life for those suffering with dry eye.
Optometry in Pakistan is in its infancy. I would like to try my best to uplift optometry in Pakistan by providing quality education and research. I hope to initiate a PhD program and work for the self-regulation of Optometry in Pakistan.
If luck permits, I also plan to pursue my research interests as a postdoctoral research fellow.
Hard work pays off and determination gets you a long way. There are many ups and downs in research degrees. Sometimes we experience setbacks; our experiments might be failing and protocols might not work. The only thing that keeps us going is determination.
Technical competency is also very important. Use your early years to learn as many techniques as you can; they will help you tackle an array of problems in the future. Be broadminded and think critically.
Take time to relax now and then and attend the tea and coffee breaks at work. Those breaks give you opportunities for informal exchanges with other researchers that can prove very productive. Working on communication skills will be very helpful as well.
Above all, perhaps, to be successful in academia you need to develop your persistence and preserve your creativity no matter what. Creativity is all about finding solutions to problems for which there are no recipes 😊
I graduated from the School of Optometry and Vision Science at UNSW Sydney in 2016 and worked for two years in the coastal town of Port Macquarie in both private and corporate settings. I decided to do a PhD because I've always wanted to conduct translational research that is applicable to clinical practice and continue my interest in teaching and imparting knowledge to future generations.
My research involves ocular surface biomarkers in a common and debilitating condition known as peripheral neuropathy caused by cancer chemotherapy. There is currently no standard protocol for diagnosis and no effective treatment, so we believe that the research will be able to contribute to more efficient detection and monitoring of this condition.
I decided to take up this research because it involved a unique collaboration between the great minds of oncology, neurology and optometry. My supervisors Professor David Goldstein, Professor Arun Krishnan and Dr Maria Markoulli are leaders in their own fields and I was convinced that they will be able to foster a cooperative environment and develop my career as a future researcher and academic. I was also interested in being able to work with individuals from various backgrounds including neurophysiologists, exercise physiologists and medical oncologists within Prof Goldstein's IN FOCUS group which spans a collaborative network of hospitals and universities across Australia (https://www.infocusstudy.org.au/).
I plan to continue my research interests as a postdoctoral research fellow and develop my teaching skills to ultimately become a competent lecturer and clinical educator.
I have been working as a full time optometrist in corporate stores in Canberra and Sydney. In the last 2 years, I have been working as a locum as well which has taken me all over Sydney and regional NSW.
As a private practicing optometrist, I wanted to expand my skill set to behavioural optometry. Working in western Sydney, I see a lot of children with binocular vision and visual perception disorders. I want to be able to offer management options through vision training as spectacles are not the solution to all cases.
Furthermore, skills in fittings of hard contact lenses for managing complex corneal conditions are a real bonus for any optometrist in clinical practice.
No, this is my first postgraduate course.
So far we have submitted for publication a literature review on impact of digital devices on binocular vision, tear film and dry eye. The topic is extremely relevant in society and knowledge I have gained through research I incorporate into advice for patients I see. The research process was arduous but rewarding, in retrospect, I was helped every step of the way by my supervisors.
Once in clinical practice, I think often we forget to refresh our knowledge by reading research articles and this course has brought me to research as a source of continued professional development.
I have also done an Ocular disease course which has been a great refresher of undergraduate knowledge and any new developments that have occurred since. Being run by CFEH, the course is full of case studies and clinical relevance. Best part is that its all online which allows me to work through it at my own pace.
I plan on continuing work as full time optometrist in Sydney.
Have a look at the course on UNSW Handbook which explains the subject content. If you cannot commit to the full Masters Program, there are options for shorter postgraduate courses such as Graduate Diploma (36 units) and Graduate Certificate (18 units).
The MOptom course will certainly add to the abilities of any practicing optometrist and being able to chose which subject to do when makes it easier to fit studying in with personal and work commitments. There’s plenty of support available from lecturers and SOVS staff. Fi, at SOVS, is always helpful in discussing courses to help you plan for the course ahead.