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    Q&A: Chris Lievens, OD, MS, FAAO—Chief of Internal Clinics at The Eye Center, Southern College of Optometry

    Air Force, PhD, risotto, jumping out of a plane

    Where did you grow up?

    I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. My dad was a federal government employee and so from the time I was born to the time I graduated high school, it was always in the D.C. area—in fact, I went to high school in Washington, D.C. After I went to optometry school, I went into the Air Force and was stationed in Washington, D.C., so we moved back there.

    How did your Air Force ROTC experience affect your optometric education and expectations?

    The high school that I went to was a day school, not a boarding school, but it was a private military high school. At an early age, I had an inkling to join the military, and the offerings of ROTC scholarships for undergrad certainly propelled me in that direction and helped me to afford to go to Tulane University. I was slated to be a weapons officer, or, because I was majoring in math and economics, a buying officer for the Air Force. But I was always interested in eyes, so I asked the Air Force for a sabbatical so I could fund my own way through optometry school with the agreement that I would come back in the Air Force as an optometrist.

    Previous Q&A: Q&A: Craig Thomas, OD: Optometrist Dallas, TX

    Why academia vs. private practice or military or industry?

    My wife is also an optometrist; we graduated from the same optometry school and she was in the Air Force as well. When you have the exact same career and the same service, your options for where you can move around the world are very limited. We knew we weren’t going to be in long term. For the majority of the last few years of Air Force work, I was an associate in a private practice, my wife was an associate in a private practice, and it was one of those life crossroads. We were opting to buy into two different private practices where we would be partners, then this offer came from academia. It was a very tough decision; I don’t think there was a “right” decision. We decided that if we were ever going to experiment as faculty members, it was the prime time in our lives to do that. We took the risk. If it didn’t work out, we would opt for private practice after that. Seventeen years later, it seems to have worked for us.

    What three things do you advise optometry students?

    Lifelong learning is a phrase we throw out there. The world changes at such a fast pace, eye care is changing, and technology is changing—if we don’t devote time to keeping up, the world is going to pass us by educationally. It’s not easy. We have life challenges, families, PTA meetings, and we’re tired after a long day. But forcing time to pick up a journal or an article to keep learning is really, really important. Number two is to have some outlet. Have other things to free up and expand your mind in a different area. I think that enables us to enjoy life and not just think about work. The last thing is that optometry is a small profession. We are in this together. Sometimes, in some sense we are competitors, but at the end of the day we want each other to do well, we want this profession to do well, and we want out patients to do well. We need collegiality and support from each other to drive this profession forward.

    Related: Q&A: Darryl Glover, OD: Cofounder of Defocus Media

    Why did you decide to get a PhD, and why in the UK?

    I try to look for what’s next, a new challenge. One of the things optometrically I do for fun, and this kind of nerdy, but I like clinical research.  I like exploring a question that needs to be answered and doing my best job to answer it. If I would look for the next chapter in my academic life, I’d like to take on more of that. I would be better armed to with a PhD background. In the United States, the PhD program is very much classroom-based, whereas in the UK it’s more project-based. In order for me to continue my full-time job, the design of the UK program seemed to make more sense. And it just so happened that SCO had been fostering a relationship with an institution in Cambridge in which both institutions were toying with the idea…“Hey, we’d love it if one of your faculty members would do this.” Well, it was the right place, right time for me, and I ended up raising my hand.


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