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Business & Profession Oculoplastics, Comprehensive, Professional Development, Education and Training

From Empowered to Empowering

What sparked your interest in medicine?
When I was in junior high, I took a summer anatomy course at the University of California, Berkeley, US, taught by medical students. They had completed their anatomy dissection course and shared a cadaver with us. I was hooked. The course really ignited my passion and appreciation for the human body. It was also my first opportunity to meet people of the same age who wanted to be physicians and it made me think that maybe I could be a doctor, too. I remember coming home and telling my parents that I thought I wanted to be an anatomy professor or a doctor. We didn’t know any physicians other than the ones who took care of our family, so my parents reached out to my pediatrician and asked her what they could do to help me achieve my goal.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in ophthalmology and oculoplastics in particular?
One patient changed my career path in medicine. As a third-year medical student, I was headed to a future in sports medicine until I observed the preoperative counseling for a middle-aged woman who was undergoing an orbital decompression for thyroid eye disease (TED). The otolaryngologist showed her a look book of pre- and postoperative photos and I was able to observe the remarkable transformation of this restorative procedure. I was first assistant on her surgery the next day, with the otolaryngologist and an ophthalmologist. I knew I enjoyed working with women from my research experience with the Women’s Health Initiative and, after that clinic and surgery experience, I decided I wanted to commit my life to helping TED patients (who are mostly women). I attended an International Ophthalmology Conference through the Proctor Foundation and decided ophthalmology was the perfect fit for me. 

I tried to keep an open mind [...] but in my heart, I remained committed to oculoplastics – and still love it today.

I also found out something important when I was in med school: I most enjoyed interacting with patients when they felt empowered. Though it was hard to admit, it helped me realize that I preferred examining patients fully dressed, in an outpatient setting. I then did a transitional internship – with neuroradiology, endocrinology, and otolaryngology as my electives – to prepare for oculoplastics. I chose to attend the University of Iowa for residency in part because Keith Carter was the Residency Director at the time, and he was one of the few residency directors who were oculoplastic surgeons. I tried to keep an open mind during residency, but in my heart, I remained committed to oculoplastics – and still love it today.

Clinically, where do your interests lie? 
I remain passionate about caring for TED patients, but I also love the variety of patients and conditions I treat – both acute and chronic. Take eyelid reconstruction for example: I love how it allows for creativity but always remains challenging. I also really like having a mix of patients with different ages, genders, and backgrounds, with a variety of conditions. I enjoy using my surgical skills to help patients with age-related and oncologic conditions, as much as those who have sustained traumatic injuries or have aesthetic concerns. I also value the teamwork that comes with working with other subspecialties in ophthalmology, as well as other fields such as otolaryngology, dermatology, plastic surgery, and neurosurgery. 

You’re a passionate champion of women in ophthalmology; where does this come from?
Being a woman wasn’t a strong part of my identity through medical school. I never thought that my gender affected me either positively or negatively. Although as a female physician, I receive constant reminders from – typically older, male – patients of my gender, it was a particular experience while interviewing for my oculoplastics fellowship that measurably affected my perspective. During an interview, a prospective fellowship preceptor told me: “You are smart and athletic, but I have never taken a woman as a fellow and I do not think I am ready to do so this year.” In that moment, I realized that some leaders saw being a woman as a liability. 

The person who took the fellowship from that preceptor deserved it – and he, in my opinion, was likely better qualified for the position. Had the preceptor only just said he picked someone else based on their overall qualifications, I would have completely understood. But he didn’t – and, in a strange way, I appreciated his honesty because I wouldn’t have wanted to work closely with someone for two years that had such strong feelings about women as fellows. Better yet, his rejection also steered me towards my fellowship at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, where I went on to have a large number of amazing female role models.

The preceptor’s words also gave me the impetus to attend my first Women in Ophthalmology (WIO) Summer Symposium during my fellowship, which ultimately set my career into motion. 

Can you tell us about your path to WIO President? 
I attended my first WIO meeting in 2007 and it was incredible. I met so many welcoming and encouraging women (and men) and I immediately knew that I wanted to spend more time with this group. I loved having the opportunity to chat with other people who were interested in helping each other personally and professionally. I’ve attended the Summer Symposium every year I could since 2010 – including (virtually) 2020, so this year will be my 13th. I only missed 2008 because I was traveling out of the country before starting my first job and 2009 because my eldest son was born later that month.

I co-founded the Summer Symposium oculoplastics wetlab in 2011 and then had the opportunity to Chair the WIO Summer Symposium in 2013. In 2011, when  Carolyn Anderson asked me to be her co-Chair for the 2012 Summer Symposium, I had a two-year-old and was pregnant with my second son. I was incredibly moved that she saw something in me that I had never seen in myself.  I had never held a leadership position nor had I ever aspired to do so. I never saw myself as a leader, but Anderson’s faith in me was incredibly empowering. It was also so refreshing that she didn’t let my motherhood stop her from giving me the opportunity. Accepting her offer to be the co-Chair in 2012 led to me chairing the meeting in 2013 and joining the Board of Directors in 2014. Since that time, I have served the organization to the best of my abilities and have dedicated much of my time and energy to our mission. It was a privilege to serve as WIO President in 2020. 

What would you say to someone who believes such societies are no longer relevant? 

Not fearing judgement, but instead feeling empowered, has helped me take chances and put myself out there in ways I couldn’t imagine before.

In many organizations within ophthalmology, there are few opportunities for leadership for people who are early- or even mid-career. When I joined WIO, it was quite small and this afforded me the opportunity to get very involved early on. As WIO has grown, we have sought opportunities to continue to provide early-career physicians with leadership opportunities. Leadership and public speaking do not come naturally to all of us. They definitely don’t come naturally to me. WIO has been a wonderful way for me to learn and practice skills, such as how to run a Board call, chair a meeting, speak at the podium, build a panel, discuss development opportunities with industry partners, and evaluate a budget – all in a supportive environment. Not fearing judgement, but instead feeling empowered, has helped me take chances and put myself out there in ways I couldn’t imagine before.

My experiences through WIO have given me the skill set and confidence to lead other organizations within ophthalmology. The WIO motto is “Empowering Aspirations.” When I attended my first meeting, I didn’t have career aspirations beyond being the best clinical ophthalmologist I could be. It is only through WIO that my career has blossomed beyond clinical practice. Also, because of the collegial nature of the WIO Summer Symposium and the time built in for networking, I have had the opportunity to not only meet but also get to know leaders within our field. I have made wonderful friends with whom I share a passion for the mission of WIO and who I look forward to seeing every August. No other society or meeting offers all of these things.

What would you consider to be your biggest professional and personal successes?
I am really proud of how much WIO has grown since I first got involved with leadership in the organization in 2012. I feel fortunate that so many other people are able to experience everything that I love about the organization. I am also extremely proud of my 9- and 11-year-old sons – and the young men they are becoming. My husband and I are thoroughly enjoying being parents and seeing them thrive in so many ways. 

How has oculoplastics changed over the course of your career?
The growth of aesthetics within oculoplastics has been particularly pronounced. The technologies and principles available to us are helping both our aesthetic and functional patients. My initial passion for thyroid eye disease (TED) has been reignited with the recent FDA approval of teprotumumab, a monoclonal antibody therapy which has dramatically changed how we treat TED patients. When I finished fellowship, I got involved with a Graves’ disease support group and built a large TED practice, but I soon became frustrated with waiting and watching while the disease took its toll on patients. It was only once they were stable that we would typically intervene. I often felt helpless and lost my love for it. Thankfully, I now love seeing TED patients as I have a new tool that allows me to intervene sooner.

Who, outside of the scientific community, has been your biggest inspiration?
My aunt, Sandy Barbour, the Athletic Director at Penn State University. She is one of the few women Athletic Directors at a Division 1A university. She has demonstrated to me that if you love what you do and you throw yourself into it, you will be successful no matter what barriers you face.

Describe your perfect non-working day.
Outside of COVID-19, I would have said traveling someplace internationally with my family, exploring a new city with lots of time outdoors, and trying new foods. In Iowa, my perfect non-working day includes running in the fields with my dog, going for a hike, watching my sons compete in their sports, grabbing a boba tea in the afternoon, enjoying almost any type of Asian food for dinner, and watching a movie with my family.

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About the Author

Phoebe Harkin

Associate Editor of The Ophthalmologist

I’ve always loved telling stories. So much so, I decided to make a job of it. I finished a Masters in Magazine Journalism and spent three years working as a creative copywriter before itchy feet sent me (back)packing. It took seven months and 13 countries, but I’m now happily settled on The Ophthalmologist, where I’m busy getting stuck into all things eyeballs.

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