Q&A: Contact lenses, academia and leadership, and a good sandwich

May 14, 2019
Vernon Trollinger

Optometry Times Journal, Vol. 11 No.6, Volume 11, Issue 6

Meet Jennifer Coyle, OD, MS, FAAO: Dean of Pacific University College of Optometry

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Minnesota, and when I was in middle school we moved to Alaska. My mom was a homemaker. My father worked as a pipefitter, and the pipeline drew him to Alaska. So I feel like I grew up in both places. In Alaska, we lived in a log cabin-it was a true Alaska experience. No running water; we had electricity but no HVAC. We were in that log cabin for about 5 years. 

Why contact lenses?
When I came to optometry school, I assumed I was going back to Alaska to a private practice I worked in a practice after high school and perhaps specialize in pediatrics. In my second year of optometry school in the second week of my basic contact lens course, I was just inspired. I become fascinated with the idea that you put this little piece of plastic in the eye and you can see. [Laughs] I had been transformed by contact lenses as a teenager. My mentor Cristina Schnider was very inspirational. It completely changed my career path. I stayed in academia, completed a contact lens residency, and was involved with research because there were questions I wanted to answer. It’s life-changing for people.

What keeps you at Pacific University?
It’s home. I started here in 1989, 30 years ago as a first-year optometry student. It’s a culture that brings the best of people. It’s the people that I learn from, the people I’ve worked alongside as a faculty member. And it’s the people I get to advocate for as a dean. My role is to advocate for multiple constituents: students, faculty, the profession of optometry, my college, and our alumni. The people get me jazzed about doing what I do because we have a common purpose and strong philosophy about how important eyes are to allow a person to function, be successful, and enjoy life. My kids are both graduating from Pacific. So, I’m a student, a faculty member, an administrator, and a parent. [Laughs]

Previously by Vernon Trollinger: Q&A: A variety of pets, master's in nutrition, peanut butter, and jujitsu

Why stay in private practice?
I practiced for 12 years in a multi-doctor group practice. But when I became an administrator, I realized after I tried to do it all that you can’t always do it all. I had to pick. One of the hardest days of my life was the last day of practice and saying goodbye to my patients and the staff.

What's something your colleagues don't know about you?
I had a nine-month old daughter when I started optometry school, and when I graduated I was nine months pregnant. [Laughs] I had to figure out that whole balance thing from the beginning. My son is graduating from optometry school this year.

Also by Vernon Trollinger: Q&A: Sharing space with another OD, ODs on the front line of primary care, and Motorcycle Weekend

What keeps you engaged in teaching?
The students, the opportunity, and the profession. Every day we do something new and encounter a new scenario. I’m in an extremely dynamic environment with people so dedicated to education, optometry, and science. Things are always happening, and there’s always a new challenge. I get to meet new people every day and make connections. Now I’m at the point in my career where I’m not the one who is trying to figure it out-I’m the one who is trying to help others figure out where they want to go and what they want to do. Mentorship and leadership have become important to me. It can’t replace my love of contact lenses, but it’s a close second.

What do you advise students entering optometry school?
Be open minded. Always be thinking about goals and making choices that set you up for success. At graduation, after I put their hood on them and shake their hands, I usually whisper in their ears, “Now go find your bliss.” My advice to students is to set them up for success as early as possible. Find mentors, explore something that scares you, especially an area you don’t know a lot about. Build up experiences so after graduation you enter the mode of practice that makes you excited about getting up everyday and taking care of patients.

Related: Why ODs shouldn't stop short with patient care

What's your favorite city?
I love Paris. Paris is such an amazing city because of the history, the culture, and the food. I like the challenge of people speaking French to me, and I’m trying to get by on my high school and freshmen-level college French.

What is your guilty pleasure food?
If I could eat a sandwich everyday, I would. [Laughs] I think for the last 20 years bread and fat have gotten a bad rap. My guilty food is a really good sandwich. Something with lots of vegetables, turkey, and avocados. Anything with an avocado on, I’m down for. [Laughs]

Related: Q&A: Cornea, almost two residencies, and a Vietnamese hoagie

Do you have any regrets?

I’m sure we all do. When you take risks and try new things, you can’t live your life looking for regrets. I just don’t have time for that. I wish I learned in my younger years what Dr. Linda Casser calls the art of marinade: gather information and let it sit for a little bit. Sometimes all you need is a good night’s sleep and 24 hours to wake up with a fresh perspective. Usually your gut tells you. I wish I’d followed my gut more in the past.

How should optometry move forward?
We need not only to hone our skills as practitioners but to embrace inter-cultural communication as the diversity of our nation changes and to think about how patients are going to relax around us so that they can relax about seeking eye care from us. We are better diagnosticians because we have so much technology at our fingertips. My hope is that we can discard the fear and embrace it in a way to make us better. We need to remember that there are areas of expertise that technology is not going to replace-communication with the patient, knowledge of optics and binocular vision, and taking care of children. We have a ton going for us. Technology can make us even better.

What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
The scariest thing I’ve ever done, I emceed the banquet for the American Academy of Optometry new Fellows. You stand in front of 800 people trying to be funny and not to trip over your own tongue. [Laughs] I did it twice. I get very nervous anytime I speak, so to me that was crazy because it was pushing my limit.

Read more Q&As here

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