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Wednesday / May 22.
HomemifeatureQ&A: A/Professor Eric Papas

Q&A: A/Professor Eric Papas

It been a decade since Associate Professor Eric Papas was involved in the development of the silicone hydrogel contact lens. We speak to Associate Prof. Papas about what he thinks the latest technological developments may hold for the future of optometry.

Associate Prof. Papas is the Executive Director of Research and Development, and Director of Postgraduate Studies at the Brien Holden Vision Institute and Vision CRC.

He was involved in the development of the silicone hydrogel contact lens at the Cooperative Research Centre for Eye Research and Technology (CRCERT) based at UNSW in Sydney in the late 1990s. These lenses were released in Australia during 1999.

Recently he conducted a lecture series on silicone hydrogel lenses across seven countries that stretched from South East Asia to the Middle East, where the lenses have most recently been released. In a gruelling schedule, Prof Papas visited eight venues in 18 days to help educate local practitioners on the use and fitting of the lenses.

The movement is for countries where perhaps eye care is less well developed, to improve the education and skills of the clinical providers

Q. Professor Eric Papas, how did you come to be in your current position?

I was going to be a physicist originally but it turned out I wasn’t very good at that…so in order to keep eating I thought I’d better find something else. A mate suggested optometry which, when I looked into it, seemed like a good alternative.

I actually had no intention of going into research, I thought I’d just be an optometrist, have my own practice, take a couple of days off a week and have a nice life! But it was a couple of years after I’d qualified – this was in Manchester – and my boss at the time supervised an undergraduate clinic which on that particular day he couldn’t attend. He asked if I could cover for him. Well I did, and of course, he never did it again after that!

It was through this that I got involved in research at the University of Manchester and, to cut a long story short, I ended up working for a contact lens company in the UK in a research role – running their research clinics. Then, about 18 years ago, I was offered a job at the CCLRU (Cornea and Contact Lens Research Unit). The CCLRU at UNSW was the precursor to the Institute for Eye Research (now the Brien Holden Vision Institute) and was a central participant in the CRCERT. So I came over here for what was supposed to be only two years – and never went back!

Q. Can you tell us about your involvement in postgraduate education?

Since being involved with postgraduate education it’s been really satisfying to watch students go from being essentially bright undergraduates to scientists understanding the research process. Seeing them able to carry out a research investigation and present the results of their work at a conference or similar forum and become skilled, proficient and confident in that process is a great experience.

It’s nice to see the range of projects, undertaken by people from different backgrounds, come to fruition. We have students from many nationalities – people from India, the Netherlands, Germany, China, the United States as well as Australia. It’s nice to see all those different groups of people working together.

Q. Does the Vision CRC offer students a particular environment they may not find elsewhere?

Yes. The whole point of the CRC educational approach is to give students a more practical approach to research than they would get in a purely academic course of study. So because we’re generally working in an area resulting in the development of a product or a commercial outcome we’re typically involved with industry partners and with projects that have defined timelines, budgets and intellectual property imperatives as fundamental components. This means that we can give our students exposure to this environment, allowing them an insight into the needs and structures common in the larger world of commercial research activity. That’s not always the case in traditional postgraduate projects.

Consequently our students have a broader range of career options than just traditional lab-based research. We have graduates in prominent positions within industrial companies, some go on to work in CRCs and others are in areas such as patent law.

Q. Was your recent lecture tour of South East Asia and the Middle East related to developments in contact lens products?

The reason for the tour was because silicone hydrogel lenses – one of the big successes of the CRC for Eye Research and Technology (CRCERT) – haven’t been introduced uniformly across the world. Ciba Vision, the industry partner with CRCERT in the development of the lenses, sponsored the tour to support the introduction of silicone hydrogel lenses in new markets. India, for example, has had these lenses for only three years and in Vietnam they’re brand new.

My role was to provide the scientific background to why these lenses offer advantages for wearers compared to more traditional materials.

Q. How do you see the future of contact lenses?

As well as presenting the science behind silicone hydrogels, some of the lectures included material about how they can be applied in situations such as correcting astigmatism and presbyopia. Additionally, in some countries I gave a flavour of some future developments in contact lens technology. Specifically how they may be used to control the progression of myopia.

Q. Can you give us a glimpse into some of the key projects at the Vision CRC?

It’s an interesting time. When I was training there was some pessimism about the future of optometry given the advent of technologies like refractive surgery and automated refraction machines.

Well, more than 20 years later optometry is still a strong profession and I don’t see that really changing. In fact, if you look across the world, the movement is for countries where perhaps eye care is less well developed, to improve the education and skills of the clinical providers. The whole discipline moves forward. Ophthalmology moves forward, optometry moves forward and other groups of care providers move forward. So there’s a continual technological advance. Technology changes what’s possible to do in vision and who delivers that care will depend to some extent on the type of technology that exists.

One of the really exciting possibilities is our own accommodating gel project. Presbyopia affects massive amounts of people around the world – in some countries it’s approaching 50 per cent of the population. So to be able to cure that condition has enormous potential and would be a major change in the approach to correcting that particular condition.

Q. What advice would you give to those considering a PhD?

If you have the opportunity and desire, then absolutely do it! The key things are to find a good supervisor and have a good research question to study. It should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Q. Can you offer any advice for those in the optometry field?

Because optometry is a vocational degree, most people expect to go into clinical practice once they have finished and not many consider doing postgraduate research. That’s not a bad thing for the majority and I think, once you’re qualified, going into practice and spending some time honing your skills and learning the practicalities of being an optometrist is important. Having done that, some individuals will be interested in considering postgraduate research. There’s a whole range of research areas that are available from clinical and laboratory studies to public health. So I encourage anybody with the right academic background and interest to consider postgraduate research – it’s three years well spent.