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Eyes on the future: Meet the female deans leading optometric education

Optometry Times JournalApril digital edition 2023
Volume 15
Issue 04

Women head 42% of schools of optometry.

For a nickel a lens, Karla Zadnik, OD, PhD, would help her paternal grandfather polish trial lenses in his basement optometry practice. He was the only grandparent she knew, and Zadnik would grow up to follow in his footsteps and find her path in the optometric industry, eventually becoming dean of The Ohio State University (OSU) College of Optometry in Columbus.

Melissa E. Trego, OD, PhD, also found her way into optometry because of her grandfather, although her story is slightly different. “He was diabetic, he couldn’t see very well, and all he wanted to do was read his Bible,” Trego said. Her involvement in her grandfather’s care drove her to her passion to improve people’s quality of life through their sight. Now she is the dean of Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University in Elkins Park.

Working to find her career path, Alicia Feis, OD, FAAO, always knew she wanted to be in a helping profession. Did she want to be a teacher? A pediatrician? Optometry was not quite on her radar, although this would change during the spring of her senior year of college when an optometrist came in and spoke to her health professions class. “I have never met an optometrist in my entire career [who] has ever said that they don’t like what they do,” Feis said. Her path took her full circle—she is now a pediatric optometrist who teaches. She is also dean of Arizona College of Optometry at Midwestern University in Glendale.

These women are a few among the many who have led the wave of female leadership in optometry in recent decades. From seeing shifts in representation throughout the industry and academia during their careers to being part of that wave of leadership, these deans of optometry schools across the nation have seen some of it all.

Industry representation

“Now I would say that the representation of women in faculty positions in leadership represents the profession as a whole, because as a profession, demographics have shifted,” Jennifer Coyle, OD, MS, FAAO, president of Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon said. “At least the gender balance is there.”

When Coyle attended Pacific University, less than half the students were female. She saw more of a 50/50 split once she became an educator, and now she says more women than men are entering optometry school.

In 1997, 53% of the optometric student body was female, with 0% of deans and presidents of academic institutions reflecting this demographic.1 Twenty-five years later, in 2022, nearly 70% of full-time doctor of optometry students were female2 and currently 9 deans and 1 president of optometry schools are female.

During her education in the late 1990s, Melissa Suckow, OD, FAAO, said a large portion of her optometry class was female. She said that the shift in representation of female deans and leadership could be attributed to that representation within the student body.

“Whether you’re in academia [or] industry, [or] whether you’re looking at key opinion leaders, it’s important to have people that look like the younger people you’re trying to reach and mold,” said Mark Bullimore, MCOptom, PhD, FAAO, professor at the University of Houston College of Optometry.

Bullimore criticized the low percentage of female representation in the late 90s. More than 2 decades later this has improved, but he said, “Our students deserve solid role models, but looking around the boards, councils, and deans’ offices in optometry suggests that we can provide more.”1

There is slightly more of an equilibrium on the gender front, he noted, highlighting some of the particular skills women have that make them effective leaders.

“I do think that there are certain traits that perhaps women have in more abundance [than men],” he said. “[Take] Karla Zadnik as an example. She is one of the top optometric scientists of her generation, but at the same time she has a skill set that makes a very effective leader. She’s very effective at the pastoral role, and the mentoring role that a dean needs to play.”

Female representation in optometry is vital, said Sandra Fortenberry, OD, FAAO, dean of the University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s a direct reflection of what our profession looks like right now.”

Diverse representation

Although the gender balance is coming into view more clearly, there is still limited overall diversity in the optometric field. Two women in particular are breaking down some of these barriers. Fortenberry is the first Hispanic female dean of a school in the United States, whereas Keshia Elder, OD, MS, MS, FAAO, dean of the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) College of Optometry, is the first Black woman in the nation to lead a school of optometry.

“Being a Black female, and being in academia, [makes you] a little bit of an anomaly in some cases and definitely in optometry,” Elder said. “I’ve always been in a space where there haven’t been a whole lot of people like me.”

But holding a space at the table in a leadership setting allows Elder and Fortenberry to make sure that all students are being listened to and feel that they have a place of belonging.

“I can’t shake my identity as a woman; I can’t shake my identity as a Black woman,” Elder said. “Because of that, I really try to…make sure that when we have discussions and conversations, we are [considering] the needs of all…our students. Not just the ones [who] are in the majority, and not just the ones [who] are in the minority, but all…our students have to be taken into consideration as we make decisions [relating] to their education.”

Fortenberry echoed the sentiment, saying she has had many students approach her to share their appreciation of seeing someone reflective of their background in a leadership role. “Whatever background they’re coming from, Asian, Black, Hispanic, white, anything, [they are] able to say, ‘Wow, there’s a female there. And I can do that. And that’s an option for me as I look at my career,’” she noted.

The best parts of serving as dean

“My favorite part of serving as dean is having an opportunity to help contribute to the success of our students, our staff, and our faculty,” Elder said.

For Zadnik, her favorite part is seeing others succeed. “When a faculty member gets a new grant, that means they’re going to get to pursue the research they want to pursue,” she said. “I’m pleased for the college, but I’m so happy for the individual who’s achieved that.”

As dean, Feis said she considers it an extreme honor to represent the faculty, students, and staff at her institution. “I think my favorite [part of the] role is gathering all of the information, gathering all of the bright ideas from faculty, and helping create programs that I think are either necessary for the advancement of our profession or our students, or might be necessary just for making the community remain positive when challenges present themselves.”

Each woman has been shaped by their individual experiences, and their experience as dean or president continues to emphasize the joy they find in their work, centered around their students, faculty, and staff.

Leaving their mark on the optometry profession

The industry has been influenced by the achievements of these female leaders. Claiming the title “Grandma of Dry Eye,” Kelly K. Nichols, OD, PhD, MPH, FAAO, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Optometry, said she is proud of the work she was able to do as a young person involved in the beginnings of dry eye research. As she became a dry eye investigator in clinical and translational research, she received National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding that provided her with significant clinical trial experience.

“Being part of those groups and those papers and that process is really a point of pride to me; it’s probably been the most foundational part of my career,” Nichols said. “And it’s led to lots of opportunities that I might not otherwise have had, and big contributions to moving the field forward through these group efforts. I’m really very, very proud, but honestly more honored to have been part of those groups.”

With a cumulative funding total of about $40 million, Zadnik is proud of the impact she has made in the research arena on NIH-funded studies in keratoconus and in juvenile onset myopia. Pinpointing a single research achievement, Zadnik highlighted helping to identify time spent outdoors as being a protective factor for the onset of myopia in children. In the keratoconus space, she is proud to be part of the first multicenter study funded in optometry by the National Eye Institute, in which the principal investigators were optometrists.

But research is not the only space where these women have made contributions to the industry. Fortenberry, for example, was involved in the beginning days of the Rosenberg School of Optometry and played a hand in creating a successful optometry school. She said it became evident that changes needed to be made in the administration to see a thriving, successful program. “I met with our provost, I met with different people at the university, and through a lot of coordinated effort, we were able to make significant changes in the school to make sure that it was a success,” she said.

The development of PCO’s accelerated program is a source of pride for Trego. This program for students with a bachelor’s degree allows them to receive their doctor of optometry degree in 3 years rather than the traditional 4. “It was taking optometry and creating something that allows individual students to come in, finish, save on tuition, save on living expenses, and be able to jump-start their [career] just a little bit earlier,” Trego said.

Suckow has made her impact in the pediatric optometry realm, citing her work in the Chicago public schools, and helping to bring eye health to the forefront of the city.

And during Coyle’s tenure as president of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry, Coyle said she was proud of being part of pushing an initiative that created interprofessional and educational practice ways for faculty to work together across campuses for collaborative patient-centered care. The initiative is now a signature program across institutions.

“I feel optometric education is really the best way to influence the future of patient care, and ultimately the profession,” Trego said. “My hope as the dean would be to instill in our students the importance of compassion, professionalism, listening, acceptance, and inclusion, and just being the type of provider that is going to be able to treat their patients equally and fairly.”

Because of the community-focused hallmark of UAB, Nichols said she hopes to continue to light a fire in students to give back to their communities in whatever way they can during their education journey and following graduation. Suckow hopes to empower students in enhancing their learning experience, and Feis would like to see the program she is a part of continue to be nimble and embrace the challenges and innovations.

“For me, personally, I really just hope that [the students] leave here feeling loved, but also successful—that they have the competence to treat patients and see patients to the best…ability that they can,” Fortenberry said.

The path to deanship

If you ask any of these women what made them pursue the role of dean of their respective schools, you will hear answers full of humility, grace, and excitement. Some never would have dreamed of being in such a role, whereas others found it to be the next natural step in their careers.

“I’ve always loved teaching,” Suckow said. “Right out of optometry school, I did my residency in pediatric optometry and went right into academia…. It’s what I’m always driven back to; I love interacting with students, I love watching the ‘aha’ moment, and helping [them] understand concepts a little bit differently or a little bit more clearly.”

The path was not as clear-cut for Elder. Having obtained her degree in science, she began as a mathematics teacher before finding her way into optometry school. After enrolling in optometry school, she received a scholarship from the Navy and served 5 years. From there she spent time in an ophthalmology department before pursuing a position in optometric academia and eventually finding her way to the role of dean. “I had the thought in the back of my mind that I may be able to be a dean one day,” Elder said. “But it really wasn’t anything that was front and center on my to-do list, just one of those things that was something that may happen for me one day.”

Nichols was influenced by the dean of her school when she was a student. Anthony Adams, OD, who served as dean of Berkeley Optometry & Vision Science from 1992 to 2001, encouraged her to consider a role in academic optometry and leadership. “He came on during my second year and I was really impressed by the immediate changes he made when he took on the role,” she reflected. “He was just a really great researcher and a great person.”

The future is female

As the optometric profession presses on, these women and the women who follow in their footsteps will continue to play key roles in the success of students and the field as a whole.

Trego says she has definitely noticed the shift in presence of more female leaders and how it is advancing. “Probably most exciting [was] having Dr Keshia Elder at UMSL be named dean,” she said. “It was long overdue.”

Thinking of the future of optometry, Zadnik noted that it is important to ensure the health of the system remains at the forefront. She said that if the roots of a tree become rotten, the tree will not have a healthy and bright future. Who is applying to optometry school and how they are being admitted and taught, as well as the emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, are some of the educational roots of this future.

“As we watch the profession expand, our roots have to stay intact,” Zadnik said.

The future of optometry is diverse and inclusive. The women sitting in the dean’s chair at their respective optometry schools are playing important roles in creating this future, ensuring that all students, no matter what their background, feel that they belong in the optometric community.

“Being able to sit around the table with the[se] women…is truly humbling and very much an honor,” Trego said.

1. Bullimore MA. Women in optometry: hitting the “glasses” ceiling? Optom Vis Sci. 1997;74(8):589. doi:10.1097/00006324-199708000-00001
2. Proportion of female full-time doctor of optometry students by year, 2007-2022. Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. May 2022. Accessed March 29, 2023. https://optometriceducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Enrollment-Female.pdf
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