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HomemieventsSeeing Beyond 2020: Inaugural UNSW SOVS Student Conference

Seeing Beyond 2020: Inaugural UNSW SOVS Student Conference

The University of New South Wales School of Optometry and Vision Sciences recently held its inaugural student conference (USSC). The conference was inspired by the University of Melbourne’s Doctor of Optometry student conference.

Round table discussion presented by representatives from Optometry NSW/ACT, from left: Margaret Zhong, Andrew McKinnon and Paula Katalinic on the hot topics in the profession.

Current optometry and vision science teaching programs have evolved significantly over the last 10 years. At the University of New South Wales (UNSW), there have been major changes in the way that education has been delivered at the School of Optometry and Vision Science (SOVS).

Teaching has increasingly shifted from purely didactic teaching of basic clinical skills, and involvement in clinical practice, into best practices of blending learning, flipped classroom, specialised clinical techniques, and work-integrated learning within clinical placements. All of these changes ensure that graduates leave the university with a diverse clinician or scientific skill set to maximise their employment opportunities.

However, issues of social and physical distancing, university-wide teaching schedule changes, as well as an insatiable desire for learning, mean students want even more. They hunger for a greater breadth of skills beyond the classroom and consulting room. It’s not hard to see why this is the case in a society with high degrees of competitiveness.

In response to all of this, UNSW SOVS held its inaugural student conference (USSC) on Friday 4 September via Zoom.


The modern optometrist is more than a person who refracts and provides eye wear. The modern optometrist is also more than a clinician who provides primary eye care to the general community. The modern optometrist is someone who participates in their community; they are effective patient communicators; they have a critical and scientific eye; they are savvy and responsible business owners.

Similarly, the vision scientist is more than a person who studies the way people see. The modern vision scientist is an essential part of a multidisciplinary team of experts that innovate, create and provide practical sensory solutions to the world. They are intimately involved in informing urban infrastructure, film and cinema, and they are explorers of the basic anatomical and perceptual sciences. They empower and provide vision solutions to those in need. They are at the forefront of virtual reality and immersive technologies.

Career pathways panel with recent graduates, from left: Rosalie Chen, Sephora Miao, Lauren Hutchinson as they shared their work experience across different modes of practice.

The USSC program was designed to supplement the educational content of the SOVS curriculum. The content of the program was designed by a committee of representatives from first to fifth year Bachelor of Vision Science and Masters of Clinical Optometry students at SOVS to meet their specific educational needs. One of the committee’s primary goals was to present an inclusive series of lectures and workshops that would be relevant to the entirety of the student body. Furthermore, they made the conscious decision to primarily invite early career optometry or vision science graduates.

Another one of the goals of the conference was to increase engagement with UNSW SOVS alumni, and indeed, most speakers were recent alumni from the School.


The tagline of the conference was Seeing Beyond 2020, and what better topic to underscore this ‘punny’ year than myopia, a growing public health issue worldwide. Students at UNSW are fortunate to be educated by a world leader in myopia clinical practice and research, Dr Pauline Kang, who presented the keynote lecture for the conference. Dr Kang reminded us of the growing myopia epidemic, but reassured students of the important role they will play as clinicians and scientists in the future. Many of the interventions for myopia control – spectacles, soft contact lenses, orthokeratology and topical therapy – are led by optometrists, and this presents a fruitful opportunity for career development.


A diverse range of recent graduates were invited to speak to the students on their career paths. The graduates were specifically asked to give the students practical advice on what they could do while still studying to have a fruitful and rewarding career, whatever their chosen mode of work or practice. Rosalie Chen (2018 UNSW graduate) spoke on how to get started as an optometrist in New Zealand. She highlighted key differences in practice, with potentially rewarding pursuits in oral therapeutics and glaucoma management. Sephora Miao (2017 UNSW graduate) presented her journey to becoming a managing optometrist at an OPSM practice. She reminded students that optometry is a ‘people’ profession, and of the important need to develop interpersonal skills that ensure the growth of a practice and career. Lauren Hutchinson (2017 QUT graduate) described her experiences as a rural clinician and urged students to participate actively within a community.

Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith revealing her not-so-subtle changes during her presentation to convey the key message from a research paper on inattentional blindness during the workshop on science communication.

In a separate recent graduates panel, Kevin La (2018 UNSW graduate) showcased a life beyond the consulting room as a clinical optometrist. He showed his passion for food, and his enthusiasm for travel and charity work through the Eyes4Everest program. Niv Chandramohan (2019 UNSW Vision Science Honours graduate) spoke of her journey in patient care as education coordinator at Macular Disease Foundation Australia. Highlighting her important role in delivering health education to patients and clinicians, Ms Chandramohan’s career served as a reminder to the student cohort that there are many ways to help patients in the community aside from being an optometrist. Ms Chandramohan’s message to students was to pursue and engage with opportunities during their undergraduate life to identify ways in which they can help others. Margaret Lin (2015 UNSW BSc Vision Science graduate) talked about her journey into orthoptics (2017 UTS graduate) and her pathway towards being part of a collaborative eye care team, working alongside ophthalmologists in a number of disease-focussed practices. Ms Lin’s journey again reminded students of other possible capacities for patient care aside from optometry.


Due to physical distancing restrictions, live workshops were adapted to be delivered online. Consultation with the student body identified several areas for workshops. Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith facilitated a workshop on how to become a better science communicator. As a leader in science communication, Dr Nivison-Smith’s diverse research and social engagement background made her the ideal person to lead this workshop. This ‘soft skill’ was a hot topic and highly relevant to all students, from the scientists wishing to convey their research work to clinicians trying to illustrate difficult anatomical, optical or pathological concepts to patients.

Though university prepares optometry students to be excellent primary care clinicians, many eventually go on to become practice or business owners, and so having an understanding on the financial aspects of ownership was an important topic to cover. Andrew Barling (2012 UNSW graduate) recently became a practice owner and provided an incredibly honest view on the processes involved in buying into an independent practice. The insight into his mind in the lead up to becoming the practice owner of Artarmon Vision generated fruitful discussion.

The research workshop was led by Pauline Khoo, a 2016 UNSW Vision Science Honours graduate and current PhD candidate at the Save Sight Institute, University of Sydney. The session was rounded out by the return of Dr Lisa Nivison-Smith who provided information to the students on the research opportunities at the summer research, fifth year research, honours, masters and PhD levels at SOVS.

In the first of its kind at SOVS, Dr Jack Phu (2011 UNSW graduate) conducted a live demonstration of gonioscopy. The live stream was an adaptation of the planned hands-on workshop but, in this session, Dr Phu presented on different gonioscopy lenses, the insertion and removal technique, and the importance of dynamic gonioscopy. The streaming format allowed for live interaction with attendees.

Dr Jack Phu demonstrating the importance
of dynamic gonioscopy during his virtual
consultation workshop, while interacting with the audience through a live Q&A.


The profession’s organisation, Optometry NSW/ACT (ONSW/ACT), was represented by Margaret Zhong (2012 UNSW graduate), Andrew McKinnon and Paula Katalinic, who led a round table discussion on some of the topical issues that optometrists are currently facing. COVID-19 featured prominently, and Mr McKinnon referenced the problem it is, and will continue to pose to the profession, but also highlighted opportunities for the young and innovative to develop creative solutions. The panel highlighted market competitiveness and the issue of employment, especially as the country heads towards a recession. As another strategy to provide practical assistance to impending graduates, ONSW/ACT explained that they were faced with an “employers’ market” which makes it important to “put yourselves out there and be flexible”. Graduates were encouraged to have the courage to move outside their comfort zone, as many of those modes of practice, such as rural optometry, would be immensely rewarding. For vision science graduates, Ms Zhong’s advice was to engage with industry – not just traditional ones like pharmaceuticals and optical devices – but also photography, film, virtual reality, gaming, and programming.


The conference was aimed at improving student engagement and inclusiveness, and to do so by fostering future leaders of the industry and profession. As with the eye and vision – and other – fields, COVID-19 threw a massive spanner in the works, leading to numerous setbacks to what was supposed to be a collegial, interactive, live conference. However, delegates were still able to reach out to over a hundred students on Zoom, and the streamed recording can now be accessed by many more of the student body at UNSW. Learning from this experience will allow future committee members to build upon the conference. Preparations are already in progress for 2021 as we continue to grow and create opportunities for an even more rewarding undergraduate experience for students at UNSW.

Judy Nam is a Masters of Clinical Optometry student at the University of New South Wales. She is a research assistant at the Centre for Eye Health and a committee member of Early Career Optometrists of ONSW/ACT. 

Dr Jack Phu is an optometry-trained clinician scientist. He is the head of the glaucoma and neuroophthalmology unit at the Centre for Eye Health and an associate lecturer at the School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of New South Wales. 

Judy Nam and Dr Jack Phu acknowledge the efforts of student representatives from years one to five optometry and vision science at UNSW, as well as the academic and administrative staff at SOVS. For more information on USSC 2021, or if you are an early career optometrist or vision scientist interested in participating, contact the authors: jack.phu@unsw. edu.au or g.nam@unsw.edu.au 


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