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HomemiprofessionBattling to be Better: Advancing Eye Research

Battling to be Better: Advancing Eye Research

Dr Ceecee Britten-Jones is often asked why she pursued a PhD. Despite the challenges of academia, she says studying has set her up for a truly rewarding research career.

I graduated from optometry at the University of Auckland in 2015. While working on student and summer research projects, I enjoyed asking questions, presenting, and challenging perspectives. And at the end of my degree, I realised I wasn’t done with research yet.

I wanted to work full time first, so after graduation, I moved to Adelaide, South Australia, to an independent practice. Then in 2017, I started a PhD at the University of Melbourne. I don’t know if I fully understood the path I was choosing, but if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it any other way.

With an interest in anterior eye diseases, I chose to pursue a clinical PhD in anterior eye and clinical trials. I cannot express enough how challenging, yet fulfilling, my PhD journey was. I was lucky to have aspirational supervisors who taught me to be a good scientist, and how to thrive as a woman in science.

The PhD journey is never easy; you can’t equate one PhD journey to another. There’s no ‘guidebook’; it’s mostly you, supported by your PhD supervisors, stumbling to find solutions to unsolved problems to make an original contribution to the body of knowledge, while developing skills along the way.

When I finished my PhD, I wanted to move to a different research area to expand my skills. I was incredibly lucky to secure a postdoctoral position in Melbourne under the guidance of another outstanding female research leader, which exposed me to a new team and style of leadership.

Over the next three years, I focussed on inherited retinal diseases and facilitating gene therapy clinical trials, all the while developing my own research interests in ocular genetics. Now, I work alongside a diverse team of clinicians and researchers at the University of Melbourne and Centre for Eye Research Australia to advance the field of ocular genetics and gene therapy in Australia, while supporting the growth of future researchers.

A DAY IN RESEARCH

In clinical research, my day typically involves any combination of reading and writing articles, writing code and running statistical analyses, seeing research participants, scheduling research appointments, answering emails, preparing ethics applications, writing grants, crying about rejected grants, student supervision meetings, balancing budgets, project meetings, coordinating collaborations, and a significant amount of thinking, planning, and problem solving.

Alongside the glamorous aspects of research, where we see a highlight reel of grant successes, awards, media engagements, and jetting off to conferences, many scenes are cut. Articles are frequently rejected, sometimes with harsh feedback from reviewers. Grants you spend months working on may not succeed. Research problems can be exceptionally challenging and frustrating. Importantly, job insecurity is prevalent, as research is a volatile field and funding is scarce. Despite this, my failures have taught me more about personal growth than successes. Learning resilience has been the biggest lesson.

Success in research may not look like a Nobel Prize, an Order of Australia, or an unprecedented discovery that revolutionises the paradigm of existing health care. But it’s a unique feeling of accomplishment to use my skills and knowledge to make a change, no matter how big or small.

CLINICAL VS RESEARCH CAREER

Alongside full-time research, I’ve continued practising in the Australian College of Optometry contact lens clinics. While some days are more challenging than others (as we all know), clinical work can be a refreshing change from research, where there are often no answers, no solutions, and no one there to provide them. Balancing time between both is challenging, but I strongly believe clinical optometry lays the foundation for advancing eye research.

WHY STAY IN ACADEMIA?

I love the challenge and an environment of constant learning and battling to be better: a better scientist, a better mentor, a better leader. I love that I get to learn every day from others in the field, from exceptional leaders, and from my peers.

Have I got any tips for prospective researchers? I can’t possibly cover this in 800 words, so maybe you can buy me a coffee (PhDapplication optional). A research career is diverse, challenging, and rewarding, and it’s important to find the right PhD, supervisors, and team, for you. Most importantly, a PhD is not the end of a journey, but the start of a new one. I am proud to work alongside fellow optometrists, both clinicians and researchers, as we’re making our mark on the world.

Dr Alexis ‘Ceecee’ Britten-Jones BOptom (Hons) PhD is a Research Fellow in Ocular Genomics at the Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences, the University of Melbourne, and at the Centre for Eye Research Australia. She also practises as an optometrist at the Australian College of Optometry.