Alumni Profile

Emeritus Professor Eric Papas

Eric Papas

I’m probably unusual among optometrists in that optometry wasn’t my first choice as a career. Actually, it wasn’t my second choice either! When I left school, I went to Birmingham University (UK), to study physics but it didn’t take long after graduation to realise that I wasn’t exactly a recruiter’s dream. Fifty-odd job applications and not a single bite was a pretty damning sample, so at the urging of my Dad, I began work with one of his friends, who was a Chartered Accountant. He was a lovely man and I am grateful to him for giving me a try, but after six months, I knew it wasn’t for me and so I left. The experience wasn’t totally wasted though, I can still do your books if you run a fish and chip shop or a newsagency!

It was in a casual conversation with an old uni mate that the subject of optometry as a career came up and after a stimulating conversation with my own optometrist, it quickly formed itself into a career pathway. I still didn’t have it quite right though. In my mind, after completing training at the University of Manchester (UMIST) I would get my own practice, play golf a couple of times a week and that would be a nice life. What changed was that a year or so after I qualified, my boss at the time taught a contact lens clinic at the university. One day, he had another appointment and asked if I could cover for him. Of course, that was that! He never did it again and I was sucked into a teaching rôle and commenced a research Masters at the university. Incidentally, one of my fellow students at this point was our former Head of School, Scientia Professor Fiona Stapleton.

After leaving UMIST I had a couple of research positions in the contact lens industry before Professor Brien Holden came calling, with the offer of a job in Australia. Sure I thought, that’d be nice for a couple of years…and here I still am, nearly 30 years later.

The role I took on back then was as Director of Clinical Research in the Cornea & Contact Lens Research Unit, a position which included responsibility for a new project called SEE3. This was the collaboration that resulted in the invention and commercial development of silicone hydrogel contact lenses, which are now the most widely prescribed modality in the world. In fact, it wasn’t until after the bulk of work on silicone hydrogels had been completed that I embarked on a PhD. I was very much a latecomer in that respect and indeed, almost managed to talk myself out of it, for one reason or another. Fortunately, after some excellent encouragement from two very respected sources, namely Professor Dan O’Leary, who was Head of School at the time and Professor Des Fonn from Waterloo in Canada, I did decide to enrol and thoroughly enjoyed it from that moment on. Undoubtedly it was the right thing to do, for a number of reasons, but one very important thing was that it gave me the confidence to say, “I don’t understand”. If I had been more able to do that as an undergraduate, I might have been a better physicist.

The pathway after graduation led me through several roles until I became Executive Director of Research & Development at the Vision CRC, in which what is now the Brien Holden Vision Institute (BHVI), was a major participant. In collaboration with industrial partners, these organisations were responsible for several successful contact lens products and began the work that has since resulted in the development of myopia control technology.

Throughout my career I always maintained close links with the School of Optometry and Vision Science, through appointment as a visiting academic, and so when I left BHVI, it was a natural step to take up a Professorship in the School. This allowed me to continue to contribute to research and teaching and especially to postgraduate education.

It has been a great delight to see some of my former students become successful academics, researchers and teachers in our School, as well as elsewhere and in industry.

Previous Alumni Profiles

2020

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Kevin La

Why did you choose to study Optometry and Vision Science?

I've always been intrigued about the importance of eyesight. Good vision plays a huge role in a person's quality of life, and I wanted to work in a profession where I'd be able to provide a positive impact in people's lives. Optometry has allowed me the opportunity to help others by providing clear vision.

What was your experience being an Optometry and Vision Science student?
I really enjoyed my time studying optometry at the University of New South Wales. It was a wonderful place to learn from some amazing academics and leaders in Australian optometry. The optometry and vision science cohort of students tends to be smaller than that of other schools as well, and hence you build quite strong friendships with the peers you spend five or so years studying with. The coursework is challenging, so there will be a lot of ups and downs that you experience together. It makes your time at university all the more sweeter when you graduate!

Kevin La

After graduating, how did your career path evolve?

I've spent my last two years working in corporate optometry in the greater south-west of Sydney. Although not technically deemed rural, I've had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of my patients who grew up in a rural setting as there is a lesser density of practitioners closeby (for now!) - we're on the real outskirts of the Sydney region. My workplace sees a great mix of people from all walks of life, those of different ages and ethnicities, those who grew up in the city and the rural areas. I find there is a lesson to learn from everyone who walks into my consulting room, and that's what I love most about my job.

If you were not an optometrist, what would you be?

I'd be a food blogger, travelling around the world (in a Covid-free world) and sharing my food experiences! It's always been a dream of mine to jet-set to different countries and completely immerse myself in different food cultures and traditions. I find food so fascinating in its ability to bring people from around the world together, so it's definitely a passion of mine to storytell through taste. In my spare time outside of optometry, I run my own blog "Sydney Food Boy" where I write about the different foods you can find in Sydney - your tastebuds can travel around the world in our very own city if you know where to look!

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment outside of the profession of Optometry?

Through my blogging, I have been able to increase awareness and provide much-needed exposure for a lot of small businesses in the food industry, many of whom were struggling throughout the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. The conversations I've had with these business owners after a consequent increase in their customers and sales have been really humbling. It's great to know I'm able to provide support for others even outside of optometry!

Do you have any advice for school leavers considering studying Optometry and Vision Science at UNSW Sydney?

The Optometry and Vision Science course at UNSW is demanding, but you'll have a wonderful experience here. You'll come across some amazing people in your time at the school, and there's no limit to the things you're able to learn. My biggest piece of advice would be to actively try to create opportunities for yourself while at university. What you put in is what you get out, so give it your all and the opportunities will be endless.

2019

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Melinda Toomey

Melinda Toomey

Why did you choose to study Optometry?

As a small child I had visited my optometrist only to find out that I needed spectacles to correct my distance vision.  Putting my spectacles on for the first time was an amazing experience, as I discovered that from a distance, I could see leaves on a tree and writing on the board at school, which until then had been very blurry.  Having clear vision was life changing. This instilled in me a passion to help other people by giving them the gift of sight. 

What was your experience being an Optometry student?

Compared to other courses, Optometry tends to have smaller cohorts, so students can get to know one another and develop life-long friendships.  My experience as a student both at the undergraduate and postgraduate level is that optometry students like to help one another through the course.   

After graduating, how did your career path evolve?

My career path with optometry has been varied as I have practiced clinically in private, public and corporate settings; assumed management positions and educational roles within corporate optometry; participated in leadership of the profession by being a Director and President of Optometry Queensland Northern Territory; and given back through outreach clinics in indigenous communities in Australia and on international missions. My career has now gone full circle as I am once again a full-time student as I am currently a PhD candidate at UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science. 

What does your current research involve? And what do you enjoy most about it?

My research topic for my PhD is to improve the delivery of glaucoma care by Australian optometrists. This involves lots of reading of the literature and interviewing with optometrists to understand their perspectives on glaucoma care delivery with view of designing an intervention to improve care.

As President of Optometry Queensland Northern Territory, I am engaged in advocacy (lobbying governments and stakeholders), member services and advancing the professionalism of optometry (provision of continuing development and broadening scope of practice).  

What are your proudest achievements, both professional and/or personal?

My proudest professional achievement is being President of Optometry Queensland Northern Territory as this role gives me the opportunity to give back to the profession that has given so much to me.

My proudest personal achievement as an optometrist was having a patient, who I had seen as a child, come back to see me as an adult to let me know that getting spectacles had changed their life. Being able to see the board meant they developed a love of learning that lead them to complete high school and attend university.  

Do you have any advice for school leavers considering studying Optometry at UNSW Sydney?

While optometrists don’t wear superhero capes, I feel like we are very special as we give the gift of sight to our patients which can be life changing for them. So, if you are looking for a career where you can make a difference, optometry can give that to you. Optometry at UNSW Sydney is a wonderful collegiate community, where academics, staff and students are all very supportive to help you be the best version of yourself.

Please share any fond memories you have of your time studying at UNSW Sydney.

Academics and staff at UNSW are very supportive, encouraging their students to be the best version of themselves. A fond memory from studying my Master of Optometry were my Lecturers taking a personal interest in my work, to the extent of acting as mentors who encouraged me to pursue higher degree research study.

2018

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Alumni Profile - Dr Lotte-Guri Bogfjellmo Sten

Alumni

Lotte graduated with a Bachelor of Optometry from Kongsberg University College in 2003. She then pursued postgraduate studies and graduated with a Master's degree in Optometry from UNSW in 2005, and a PhD from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)/Kongsberg University College in 2014. We catch up with Lotte.

Hi Lotte, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Do you have any memories of your time at UNSW you would like to share with our alumni?

I had a great time in Sydney, and learnt a lot during my year at UNSW. If I was to do it again, I would have spent 1.5 years doing the degree instead of only 1 year, since the year was quite hectic.

We were 5 Norwegians doing the degree full time that year, two from India, and one from Malaysia. We really enjoyed our time together. We learnt a lot from each other, and we enjoyed Sydney together. We also met many nice Australian optometrists who did their Master’s degree part time.

What have been doing since graduating from UNSW?

After I graduated from UNSW I continued my job as an Optometrist at the eye department at the University Hospital, St. Olavs Hospital, in Trondheim, Norway. There I mainly worked with children, strabismus, and advanced contact lens fittings. After that, I worked a couple of years at Specsavers, Mosjøen , Norway, before I started my PhD in 2009, which I completed in 2014. Today I work as a research optometrist at Oslo University Hospital.

What are your proudest achievements, both professional and other interests?

I would say that my proudest professional achievement is the completion of my PhD. Where I studied “ The effect of development and aging on direction discrimination of global motion in a healthy Norwegian population”.

My proudest personal achievement is my lovely daughter who’s almost 3 years old.

Congratulations on both those wonderful achievements.

Could you please tell us about your current role, and what you most enjoy about your current work? What is next for you?

Today I work as a Research Optometrist at Oslo University Hospital, doing research at the Ophthalmological section.

Right now we’re doing research on Multiple Sclerosis patients, and we’re working continuously on a cornea register where we collect data on patients who underwent keratoplasty, we’re also doing examinations on keratoconus patients who underwent CXL-treatment, and we’re involved in a study regarding intraocular lens dislocation after cataract surgery. And we’re in the planning stage on a contrast sensitivity project.

I really enjoy working with patients and clinical research, since I then get to go deeper into the conditions, and we get to see the results of the different treatments.

What advice would you give to optometry students?

I would say that first of all, a genuine interest for optometry is the most important parameter to succeed. To be curious, and stay updated is very essential. The more you learn, the more interesting it becomes.

It is also important that the student likes to work with people, and is interested in finding a solution for each patient.

What qualities are important to succeed? 

Interest, eager to learn new things, and loving what you are doing.

We thank you very much, Lotte, for agreeing to be intereviewed for our Alumni Profile. We are extremely proud of all your achievements. A special mention, too, to the MOptom class of 2015; you are always welcome to visit if you are ever in Sydney again.

If you know an alumnus who might agree to be featured, please contact us on optomalumni@unsw.edu.au