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Faculty Spotlight: An Interview with Dr. Harris

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into optometry?

I was born and raised in St. Louis, MO. I went to kindergarten, elementary, high school, undergrad, and optometry school within the same two miles. Optometry has been part of my life for a long time because I was born with strabismus. By the age of 13, I had already undergone seven strabismus surgeries. I knew I wanted to do something medical but didn’t know that optometry was a possibility. Once I learned more about it though, I knew it was the right path for me.

Within optometry, I am particularly interested in the anterior segment and our urgent care patients. I like these encounters because even though it’s scary for the patient, there is a great opportunity to build a close bond between the doctor and the patient. Some of my favorite patients first came to me as urgent care patients. When you work with someone who faces the threat of losing their eyesight, you form a tight bond. With healthcare speeding up, our exams speed up as well, making these visits more impersonal. I have found that the patients who remember me best are those who needed some extra handholding. It also helps that I find the anterior segment fascinating.

You’re pretty new to ICO, but we’d love to know, why were you excited to come to ICO?

I was excited to come here because it was something different. Because of my background, I felt that I had a lot to offer clinically. I have worked in direct patient care for a long time. I look forward to being a strong resource for all students, but especially those interested in pursuing practice opportunities within hospitals and schools of medicine.

How do you see optometry changing in the next few years and how do you hope to be a part of it?

I define myself as an INTJ. One thing that is true about INTJs is that we always try to think about new and creative ways of solving old problems. Sometimes, our ideas are not always well received. Luckily the world is embracing innovation more and more every day. I believe there is room for innovation in optometry. Technology can aid health providers in terms of better patient care, safety, record keeping, efficiency, accuracy, and precision; but it will never replace the formal medical decision-making or interpersonal bond between doctor and patient. Because of this, hot topics in healthcare such as artificial intelligence and ophthalmic diagnostics don’t threaten my job security. They excite me.

Dr. Harris in clinic with a student and in an exam with a patient.

What are some of the things you hope to achieve while you’re at ICO? Where do you want to be in five years?

Within the IEI, I’d like to be more involved with the urgent care clinic and in particular the Rosenbloom clinic. I’d especially like to work with the post-op patients who are referred to us after cataract surgery. I really enjoy those encounters.

Beyond the clinic, I see myself more involved in campus affairs and in particular working with students and faculty from non-traditional backgrounds and under-represented minorities. There is so much work to be done to grow our optometric workforce so that it more closely resembles the real world.

To respond to this problem, I’m drafting a curriculum for an innovative pipeline program. The plan is to attract underrepresented minority students interested in pursuing a career in a health profession. That means optometry, but also dentistry, pharmacy and maybe even podiatry. These professions share the same student diversity issues. Of course, my goal is to have more optometrists who look like me, but I’ve realized that this may not be the right path for everyone. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, and I think an increased interest in health professions will help optometry as well.

We’ve already found an organization interested in partnering with us with over 200 students in their yearly cohort. Most of these students are first-generation college students and/or underrepresented minorities, but also very high performers. As seniors in high school, we will be engaging them at a crucial time. They can plan their undergraduate career around their future professional goals. Hopefully we can also get them involved with ICO by providing them with shadowing opportunities during the summer.

Dr. Harris in clinic with a student.

What message would you have for incoming students?

The best advice I can give here is to have three types of people in your corner. Historically, we have always talked about the importance of a mentor. A mentor can show you the ropes, teach you things you don’t know, and allow you to shadow them. That is still the first person you need on your side today. Second, you need an ally, perhaps a classmate a few grades above you, or an optometry student at another school. This person should be someone close to you in age but who knows a bit more about the path you’re interested in pursuing. Then, you need a sponsor. That’s the person who talks about you positively behind your back. Someone who can bring your name up in a positive way when you’re not around, such as a faculty mentor or externship supervisor.

We noticed that you’re quite involved on social media. Whether it's Instagram or LinkedIn, you have a very strong presence. Can you tell us how you hope to use this medium and how you hope to inspire incoming students and in particular students of color?

On Instagram, you can make a five-second video and within minutes you have messages from students across the country. It’s phenomenal the speed that information travels on social media. I love that I can use it as an ancillary educational tool. My goal is to be as helpful as possible, and the feedback that I get from students really drives me to do more.

When I first stepped foot on campus, students recognized me because of my social media profile. To them, my posts mattered. Especially rewarding are the direct interactions I’ve had with students. Many of these students were unsure where to go next, and now, they’re residents or working at their dream private practice. If you think about it, it’s only been a year since they first reached out for help. This just goes to show how much a year really matters. It’s also a sign that the art of mentoring is changing because of social media.

Times are changing and institutions, optometrists, and other health care providers must harness social media as an important learning tool and not just entertainment.

I’m just working on one little piece, but I know I am having an impact because of it. If you want to follow along and learn more about me, connect with me at @eyedoc_eharris.