Ever touch a hot pepper and then touch your eye? It hurt, didn’t it?! That’s capsaicin binding to the pain receptors on your eye, which has more pain receptors per area than any other organ in your body— fascinating, huh?
She also had a thing for chemistry and earned her Ph.D. in chemistry (2001) from the University of Puerto Rico. Towards the end of her degree program, she decided to go for clinical research and did a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in conjunction with the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
During her postdoc years, she realized that her dream job would be one that let her pursue original research on the eye, teach younger scientists and interact with patients.
The first step towards this career goal was to complete a doctoral degree in Optometry (New England College of Optometry, 2005). Since she already had a Ph.D., she qualified for the accelerated academic program. This was followed by a residency in Cornea and Specialty Contact Lenses at the New England College of Optometry.
Now she is an optometrist who specializes in Cornea and Specialty Contact Lenses and works in a clinic, the Boston Foundation for Sight, treating patients that suffer from corneal diseases.
“My career path, although it may seem like a divergent one, it really isn’t,” Karen said. “One thing led me to the other almost seamlessly.”
She initially thought she would focus exclusively on research on vision and the eye, but a desire “to interact with patients and provide them with a more tangible solution and help” led her to pursue the path to becoming a clinician.
“I see patients that suffer from severe corneal disease every day,” Karen said. “It’s very satisfying to see patients for which our treatment is most of the times their last resort and seeing how we can change their lives – we give them their lives back.”
Karen said the experiences and skills she acquired at each stage of her career all built on each other: Writing peer-reviewed journal articles, collaborating in research and teaching are all skills in her tool box, and she uses most of them on a daily basis as an eye doctor.
In addition to meeting with patients, Karen has a managerial role, working with ophthalmic technicians and managing daily clinical operations.
The treatment offered by the clinic where Karen works is called PROSE, which stands for prosthetic replacement of the ocular surface ecosystem.
““PROSE uses FDA-approved custom designed and fabricated prosthetic devices to replace or support impaired ocular surface functions that protect and enable vision,” she said. “We help patients with severe ocular surface disease and/or blinding corneal conditions.”
Part of the global mission is to make PROSE treatment available to everyone, so Karen also trains other optometrists with similar backgrounds with the goal of building a partner clinic system or network where PROSE treatment is offered.
Currently, the Boston Foundation for Sight has established seven partner clinics in top-ranked specialty eye care centers located in academic centers across the United States, three in India, one in Japan, and one in Iran.
For chemists out there who share Karen’s fascination with the eye and are wondering what career options are in store for them, she recommends thinking through all the options: you could get an M.D. and become an ophthalmologist, or you could become an optometrist like she did.
“Within the career of doctors in optometry, one can specialize in various areas, like pediatric optometry, binocular vision anomalies, cornea and specialty contact lenses, primary care, and ocular disease,” she said.
Typical optometric graduate degree programs are four years, followed by an additional one to two years of residency.
Karen is happy that her job allows here to pursue her passion, and that her environment functions “somewhat like an academic setting.”
“The best part of my job is the patient interactions and witnessing life-changing transformations,” Karen said. “Perhaps the most challenging part would be the fact that because these patients have been through so much, at times it can be emotionally challenging. However, this is what also makes it so worthwhile to strive for the end result.”
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