Happy new year to all our alumni!
We started 2020, in the grips of the bushfire disaster followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a challenging year to say the least and I thank you for your unwavering support during 2020.
I am hoping that 2021 can be a year of recovery and opportunity and I am delighted to announce that effective from 1 January 2021 the School has officially moved to the Faculty of Medicine and Health, UNSW Sydney. This transfer was a recommendation of UNSW’s Taskforce 20/21+ Faculties Working Group and arose in large part because of the redesign of the Faculty of Medicine to the Faculty of Medicine and Health. “Health” has been added to the Faculty of Medicine to broaden the scope of the Faculty with the ultimate goal of improving health. Eye health is a crucial part of that strategy. While it will be sad to move on from the Faculty of Science, it represents an exciting opportunity for the School. We thank the Faculty of Science for their support and despite moving on, we will still be connected with our colleagues in Science through interdisciplinary collaborations.
At the start of 2020 we held our annual offsite retreat where we took two days out of the office to look at our teaching, research and strategic plan for the School. We proudly came away from the retreat with a revised strategic plan and have put many of those actions into play despite the challenging year. We also formulated our new mission statement which we think encompasses everything that we embody as a School –
‘Advancing vision and eye health in society through world-class, innovative, multi-disciplinary education and research’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in one way or another. In what was an unprecedented year, I would like to thank our dedicated staff for coming together and working to create an outstanding online learning experience for all our students in such a short space of time, and to our researchers who overcame obstacles to still produce some outstanding pieces of research.
Our teaching staff developed new and innovative ways of teaching our students the content that they are normally taught in practicals, tutorials, or on the floor of our UNSW Optometry Clinic. I would like to thank them and our professional and technical staff who supported our team from home.
From March to June 2020, our Lecturers swapped their work clothes for sweatpants and uggs, rolled up their sleeves and got to work recording lectures and adopting new methods of delivering them on either Zoom, Blackboard collaborate, Microsoft teams or Moodle for all years of the Bachelor of Vision Science, Master of Clinical Optometry and Postgraduate Coursework programs.
Our final year students, that would have normally been in our UNSW Optometry Clinic, on preceptorship, or on placements were learning with online grand rounds, virtual clinics, and tutorials and telehealth consultations. This was the new norm, as was PPE, hand sanitiser and social distancing.
In June 2020 we were given permission to have our Stage 5 students come back to campus to complete their face-to-face clinical training. A new clinic model was designed to minimise face to face time in the clinic and ensure maximum efficiency with reduced capacity. To this end, I thank our clinic staff for rallying together to make the clinic COVID-19 safe under the direction of Dr Dale Larden, our Laboratory Manager and WHS Chair. Dale worked tirelessly on putting together the COVID-19 policies and procedures for the Clinic and subsequent implementation across the entire School. He worked with Faculty/UNSW to ensure that the School and our students were operating in a compliant and safe environment, all while adhering to NSW Health, Optometry Association and UNSW directives.
Surprisingly, given the disruptions of the year, our clinic only had a small reduction in face-to-face consultations in comparison to our 2019 numbers. We are also proud to report that the telehealth consultation feedback was overwhelmingly positive from our patients!
During the lockdown, our early career Optometrists, under leadership of Dr Jack Phu and Ms Henrietta Wang, held additional sessions with virtual case studies to supplement University learning. When Optometry businesses in NSW resumed in the ‘new normal’, many Alumni created additional placement opportunities for our students in their practices to minimise the impacts of cancelled interstate and international opportunities.
Our Stage 2-4 students returned to the pre-clinic lab in August 2020 and our Stage 4 students were happy to commence working in our clinic and seeing patients by the end of Term 3, 2020. Our research dependent staff and PhD students gradually returned to campus in the second half of 2020.
I thank all our postgraduate coursework and higher degree research students who were resilient and who stuck together during 2020. The campus shutdown made this a particularly trying time for our higher degree research students who rely on laboratory and clinical facilities for their research. This shutdown also affected our academic researchers who had their clinical trials and research interrupted by the pandemic.
We have been trying to do our very best with supporting everyone, both staff and students. Regular check in Zoom calls were held to see how everyone was coping with working and studying from home.
With event organisers embracing the virtual world, we moved from face-to-face to online conferences for all continuing professional development (CPD).
Fingers crossed that we will be able to return to more substantial campus activities this year.
During the first half of 2020 we added some new faces to our School of Optometry and Vision Science family. We welcomed Optometrists Tianni Jia, Adjunct Associate Professor Anthony Chapman-Davies, Dr Rajini Peguda and Emilie Ross. Konrad Pesudovs joined our team as a SHARP Professor. We also took on postdoctoral research fellows: Drs Jessie Huang-Lung, Muhammad Yasir, Shyam Tummanapalli, Parthu Kalaselvian, Rajesh Kuppusamy and Sheela Kumaran highlighting the strengths of our research program.
We farewelled a number of people also during the year, Emeritus Professor Helen Swarbrick, Dr Lisa Asper, Dr Mei Boon, Anna Delmadoros, Kay Dulhunty, Nicole Harris and Fi Anderson. We thank them for their service to the School over the years and wish them all the best for the future.
We were successful with many awards. Dr Lisa Nivison- Smith from the Centre for Eye Health was awarded a prestigious UNSW Scientia Fellowship to support her research. Clinic Supervisor Dr William Trinh was awarded an OAM in the Queen’s Birthday Honours; Professor Konrad Pesudovs was the 2020 recipient of the HB Collin Medal from Optometry Australia; Dr Jack Phu was the first Australian to receive the AAO Foundation Beta Sigma Kappa Research Fellowship; Professor Mark Willcox received the prestigious Donald R. Korb Research Excellence Award from the American Optometric Association Contact Lens and Cornea Section and Scientia Professor Fiona Stapleton was named as one of the top 250 researchers in Australia. She was recognised as the research leader in the field of Ophthalmology and Optometry.
2020 saw some fantastic grant wins for our researchers which made it our most successful year on record totalling over $6M in grant money. Most notable were grants secured by Scientia Professor Fiona Stapleton and Professor Michael Kalloniatis with support from Michael Yapp, Dr Angelica Ly, Dr Jack Phu, Paula Katalinic, Pauline Xu from CFEH, Dr Maitreyee Roy, and Associate Professor Juno Kim from the School of Optometry and Professor Arcot Sowmya from the School of Computer Science. They were awarded a Cooperative Research Centre Project Grant with university and external organisations. Professor Mark Willcox and Professor Michael Kalloniatis also had success with their 2019 NHMRC Idea Grants (commencing in 2020), with Professor Willcox having his grant ranked as the highest nationally for this round. Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith also had success with a NHMRC Investigator Grant which commenced in 2020 and Dr Nicole Carnt received a Rebecca L Cooper Medical Research Foundation Grant. The UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science has joined a consortium funded by the Australian Federal Department of Health to conduct the second National Eye Health Survey led by Westmead Institute, together with the Brien Holden Foundation and The George Institute for Global Health. We rounded off the year with Associate Professor Juno Kim and colleagues from the University of Wollongong being successful with an ARC Discovery Project Grant and a NHRMC Ideas Grant for myself and Associate Professor Julie Brown from The George Institute for Global Health.
We had an increase in our science communication and outreach activities during 2020 and one of the most popular pieces was from Scientia Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the School, Dr Nicole Carnt’s article on The Conversation: “How to keep your contact lenses clean (and what can go wrong if you don’t)” and has been accessed over 29,600 times.
Associate Professor Isabelle Jalbert with Associate Professor Katrina Schmidt from Queensland University of Technology published in The Conversation about the impact of bushfire smoke on your eyes with evidence-based recommendations for short- and long-term risks.
Professor Mark Willcox and overseas colleagues also received accolades for their publications relating to the COVID-19 pandemic from the American Public Health Association. These two papers generated over 6,000 media stories: “The ocular surface, coronaviruses” and “COVID-19 and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Important Considerations for Contact Lens Practitioners.”
During the pandemic, researcher’s Dr Nayuta Yoshioka, Associate Professor Juno Kim and Research Assistant Jason Feng also had media attention for their video showing hand washing effectiveness with augmented reality.
We were delighted this year to form some partnerships both nationally and internationally. Of note was a partnership with Uka Tarsadia University in India for drug delivery through contact lenses and an educational partnership with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT for a Graduate Diploma in Orientation and Mobility. Mid-year, we were fortunate to secure funding through the Government’s Higher Degree Relief Package for a new Graduate Certificate in Optometry designed for Australian optometrists to extend their skills in myopia control, public health, ocular therapeutics, and advanced diseases. This course was offered at a substantially reduced cost which contributed to its high enrolment levels. We have been allocated Commonwealth Supported Places for these programs in 2021 which further supports professional development activities in Optometry and Vision Science.
I would also like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank Honorary Professor Charles McMonnies who has stepped down from his role as Chair of our Visiting Committee. Charles has chaired this Committee since its inception and we truly thank him for his leadership and guidance.
This year our School of Optometry and Vision Science Visiting Committee also met, albeit virtually, and we are grateful for their continued support. Two outcomes of this meeting for 2021 will be a focus on supporting the Rural Optometry Workforce and supporting Work Integrated Learning for the Bachelor of Vision Science. We have formed sub-committees to work solely on these important projects for the School under the leadership of our new Committee Chair, Adjunct Associate Professor Craig Stamp. The School of Optometry and Vision Science also became a founding partner in the Leaders in Indigenous Optometry Education Network in partnership with all Schools of Optometry and Vision Science across Australia and New Zealand.
I would also like to thank our placement hosts, clinic supervisors, donors, sponsors, visiting academics and key stakeholders for all your overwhelming and continued support of our students, staff and School.
I wish everyone a safe and joyful 2021.
Professor Lisa Keay,
Head of School