Going beyond the clinical setting in ophthalmic mentorship

Ophthalmology Times EuropeOphthalmology Times Europe May 2024
Volume 20
Issue 4
Pages: 16 - 19

Three leaders in glaucoma research, retina care and refractive surgery share their expertise

Mentorship is a crucial component of a successful career in ophthalmology. Young ophthalmologists can improve their skills, and enhance their confidence, by finding support through a formal mentorship programme or establishing mentor-mentee relationships with their superiors, instructors or more established colleagues. Academic and research mentorship are commonly assumed to be the areas where mentorship can have the most impact.

However, data generated following a 5-year mentorship programme challenge those assumptions, according to researchers from the Casey Eye Institute, Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, Portland, Oregon.1 Outcomes from the study indicated that mentees most valued their mentors’ career advice, network building and wellness support. Mentorship also has a positive impact on gender equity in the field, expanding opportunities for promotion to women and aiding in career retention.2

But where to begin? Three industry leaders spoke to Ophthalmology Times Europe about their own experiences in early-career mentorship, including the specific ways that mentorship has aided in their careers. Though their specialities are different, all three women provided advice with striking similarities—and obvious impact.

For new ophthalmologists or established practitioners seeking out a change, we have compiled advice from Filomena Ribeiro, MD, PhD, FEBO, president of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons (ESCRS) and head of ophthalmology at Hospital da Luz, Lisbon, Portugal; Ms Neeru Vallabh, PhD, a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Eye and Vision Science, Institute of Life Course and Medical Sciences, University of Liverpool, and honorary consultant ophthalmologist for glaucoma at St Pauls Eye Unit, Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; and Alexandra Miere, MD, PhD, associate professor of phthalmology, Université Paris-Est Créteil, France, and the 2024 recipient of the French Retina Society’s Gabriel Coscas prize.

Proof positive

Often, students of ophthalmology don’t realise the full scope of the relationships they build during the first days of their careers. That impact is only obvious in hindsight. “Looking back, I can recognise the value of networking and building professional relationships very early in a career,” Dr Ribeiro said.

Dr Miere echoed that sentiment and reflected on a mentor relationship that has spanned the last decade. “I had the chance to find a very intellectually stimulating environment in...Le Centre Hospitalier Intercommunal de Créteil retina team, led by Professor Eric Souied who has been my mentor,” she recalled. Prof Souied and other instructors provided “the honest feedback I needed in order to contribute more significantly to the department, but also to grow as a clinician scientist, and as a person,” Dr Miere remembered. “When it comes to academia, unlocking individual potential is not only a question or a matter of personal will or hard work. But mentorship plays a really essential part.”

For Dr Ribeiro, connecting with mentors came as naturally as connecting with peers, since she began her career in hospital settings that put a strong emphasis on collaboration. Dr Ribeiro said that institutional focus on mentorship began during her initial rotation at Hospital Santo António dos Capuchos, in Lisbon, Portugal, and continued when she moved on to Hospital Fernando Fonseca in Amadora, Portugal. “I was lucky,” Dr Ribeiro said. “[There was] a very strong commitment to inclusivity and mentorship. The sense of belonging was really a nuclear, promoted value.”

In 2013, when Ms Vallabh was in her fourth year of ophthalmology training, she realised that she wanted to expand her horizons and pursue academic research. “It wasn’t something that I had come across until I started working in St Paul’s Eye Unit [at Royal Liverpool University Hospital],” she said. “I noticed that some of my peers were doing PhDs and MDs. That was what really inspired me at that point...seeing what colleagues were doing and thinking, ‘Well, is this something that interests me? Is it something that I could do?’” That’s when she found a mentor: Colin Willoughby, MD, BSc (Hons), FRCOphth, who was a professor and new to Liverpool at that point. “It was a great time, because he was just starting and looking for interested, enthusiastic individuals to do research,” Ms Vallabh said. “He was the person that I got in contact with, particularly because he had an interest in mitochondrial genetics in glaucoma.” That topic formed the basis of Ms Vallabh’s research degree.

The human element

While the clinical research component of a mentor relationship pays real dividends, it is far from the only benefit. Ms Vallabh recalled how her mentor, Prof Willoughby, helped her make a decision at a pivotal moment for her career and her family. “At that stage in time, I’d had one child, and I wanted to expand my family and have another child,” she said. “I was a bit concerned how this would impact...my ability to do research. At that early stage, I spoke to him and said, ‘You know, I’m just being honest here: I’m a mother, I would like to have another child, and would that impact my training?’”

Ms Vallabh had reservations, given the long history of
gender-based discrimination towards mothers in professional settings­—especially medical care. But Prof Willoughby reassured her that she didn’t have to choose between her academic passions and her family goals. “He supported my decisions. He knows it’s not just me as an academic clinician, but it’s me as an academic clinician–mother,” she said. “And when you speak about women in ophthalmology, I think that’s important to be open and honest about these things. The reality is that we do have a life outside of our career, and we can absolutely strike a balance.”

Dr Miere said that, as she’s progressed in her career, mentorship has taken on new importance. Now, she is learning how to mentor younger practitioners, too.

“I am currently an honorary research fellow at Moorfields with Professor Pearse Keane, and it is very interesting to see different styles of leadership and mentorship relations unfolding in a different workplace culture,” Dr Miere said. Seeing how other high-performing teams work has reignited her passion for her field, and she looks forward to applying all she has learned from her multiple professional role models. “The mentorship relationship is a source of learning for both the mentor and the mentee,” she emphasised. “Character skills in our mentorship relationship are as important, if not more important, than scientific ones.”

Putting ideas into practice

What does this advice look like in practice? How can the next generation of ophthalmologists find mentors who support them in a research setting, but also as professional peers? The first step, said Ms Vallabh, is being open to change, and finding different mentors for different goals or career stages.

“Life changes. I think we sometimes can start on one career path and realise that it’s not for us,” she said. “You can have multiple mentors along the way. [Work on] finding people who help to empower you.” Ms Vallabh said that a good mentor will celebrate your growth, even if it means you outgrow a role that keeps you in their orbit. That’s crucial for advancing in your career. “Keep your eye open for other interesting opportunities which you can take on. Then you can go on to flourish in those [areas] and develop them later,” she said.

Dr Miere’s advice mirrored that statement. The best way to find a mentor is often by finding a new challenge, she said. “Fight against the inertia of staying in a place where there’s no room for professional or personal growth,” she advised. “Even if that means getting out of your comfort zone: changing departments, changing cities, changing even countries.”

She also recommended building a sense of “grit” and determination to step up and ask for help, or connections, until that attitude becomes second nature. “You need a lot of courage and initiative,” she said. “Cultivate your network—again, this is really of paramount importance—and be very proactive in the journey to success.”

Finally, take advantage of the connections made possible by your educational institution or other affiliations, Dr Ribeiro said. Often, more established colleagues are happy to share their time, expertise and connections with more junior clinicians. Don’t be afraid to take part in the social aspects of social networking,
she advised.

“Join professional organisations—like ESCRS, for instance—and attend networking events,” Dr Ribiero recommended. Professional organisations often have the added benefit of being specialty-specific, so young ophthalmologists are more likely to find mentors who are familiar with the unique career challenges they may face.

Image credit: ©Vitechek – stock.adobe.com

Image credit: ©Vitechek – stock.adobe.com


1. Yang S, Glass ST, Clements JL, Reznick LG, Faridi A. Outcomes of a five-year formal ophthalmology residency mentorship program. J Acad Ophthalmol (2017). 2022;14(2):e178-e186. doi:10.1055/s-0042-1756133
2. Hoyer A, Randolph A, Syed MF, Elahhe Afkhamnejad, Mirza RG. Enhancing mentorship networks through the experiences of women professors of ophthalmology. J Acad Ophthalmol. 2023;15(01):e1-e7. doi:10.1055/s-0042-1760206
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