Little did eight-year-old Suhyun Kweon know that an innocent desire for her own pair of glasses would lead to a career in optometry – both in clinical practice and research.
When I was eight, my best friend wore glasses and I wanted to get a matching pair, so I told my mum I couldn’t see. She took me to an ophthalmologist who administered cycloplegic eye drops and, to my delight, gave me glasses. From then on, I regularly updated my prescription, partially because I wanted to change my frame, but also because my eyesight got worse every year.
Although I was working in independent practice at the time, I was convinced to pursue higher degree study
Growing up in Korea, there were no optometrists and therefore I saw opticians to correct my short-sightedness. When I moved to Australia at age 13, I didn’t really understand what optometrists did. All I knew was that I wanted to be able to look after people’s health. My first experience with an optometrist was when I lived on the Gold Coast. She was very kind and caring and I was interested in how her role allowed her to look after people’s eye health while also working with the front-of-house staff to help patients pick out their frames.
I decided to study optometry at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, and during the final year of my degree, I met my mentor, Laura Reale. From our very first phone call, I knew she would be amazing. She was so positive and encouraging, and I had this gut feeling that I would work with her. As a graduate optometrist, my real challenge was figuring out who to listen to. There were so many people who tried to give me advice; some who said negative things about patients/customers and optometric job prospects. In the beginning I was too young to filter out the unhelpful information, but Laura and the early career optometrists (ECOs) I met through Optometry NSW/ACT guided me through. I learnt that just because someone is older or more experienced than me, doesn’t necessarily mean they are wiser.
After graduating from QUT in 2018, I moved to Sydney and was very lucky to find a graduate position at an independent practice in the CBD, where I worked full time for a year.
Laura’s mentorship continued to guide me while practising. I have always admired how she tries to understand things from the patient’s perspective and spends a tremendous amount of time educating patients and solving problems – she never runs away from issues or blames her patients for anything. She has also taught me to be a great listener and that, in order to be a good optometrist, you first need to be a good person. If I had one piece of advice for ECOs, it would be to take advantage of Optometry NSW/ACT’s free mentorship program – you may get very lucky!
A big turning point for me was when I met Professor Fiona Stapleton in-person at an optometry event in 2019. Three years earlier, during the second year of my degree, I had applied for an external research scholarship at the University of New South Wales, and had been in contact with Prof Stapleton, via email, about the prospect of undertaking a PhD in the future. Fast-forward to our chance encounter, and this desire was reignited. Although I was working in independent practice at the time, I was convinced to pursue higher degree study.
I chose to pursue my PhD topic on investigating the influence of sex hormones on dry eye disease, in particular meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD). This research involves using forefront technology, including estrogen selective mass spectrometry, to measure sex hormone concentrations in tears and blood to see how sex hormones influence meibomian gland (MG) function. We are also using 3D bio printing technology to create a 3D MG cell culture model that enables us to test the effect of estrogens in MG function.
Through this work, I see many patients with MGD, especially women over the age of 50, and yet there is no tailored treatment method. I want to understand this at a scientific level, and work on improving the therapeutic side of dry eye management. More importantly, I would love to translate my research knowledge into a tangible product and/or result that allows optometrists to help those suffering from ongoing and bothersome dry eye symptoms.
My career thus far has exposed me to a vast range of experiences, for which I am extremely grateful. The chance to diversify my skill set, through working with patients, and in research and education, all while helping improve the health system in general, is why I love optometry so much. I am so willing to jump at any opportunity to improve people’s health.
Suhyun Kweon graduated from Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane in 2018 and is currently undergoing a PhD at University of New South Wales, Sydney.