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A change of direction

16 April 2014

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A Consultant Ophthalmologist and expert in inherited eye disease has been appointed the new head of the University’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences.

The new head of Cardiff University’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences is aiming to expand its undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and build on its research reputation. Ophthalmologist Professor Marcela Votruba talks to OT’s Emily McCormick about the plans.

For many, a new year means new beginnings, and for Professor Marcela Votruba (pictured) 2014 marked a new job role after she was appointed head of the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences at Cardiff University, a position which she took up on January 2.

An ophthalmologist by training, Professor Votruba joined the university in 2003 as a clinician scientist funded by the Medical Research Council, before going on to become a senior lecturer within the department.

Discussing the new position, Professor Votruba speaks with confidence as she tells OT why she applied for the role. “When the position became available, it was clear that we, as a school, needed to refocus our energies and look to future developments,” she said. “Looking at the post from a clinician scientist’s perspective, I knew that I had something to offer and I felt strongly about how the School should evolve.”

Very clear about her ambitions for the School’s future, the Professor’s imminent focus will be on reformulating the School’s strategic plan and research strategy, with an overarching goal to “bring teaching and research closer together.”

A department united

The new direction for the department will be driven by two factors, Professor Votruba explained. One element focuses on the education of the next generation of optometrists, the second is its basic and clinical research – both of which she labels as “the core functions of the school.”

Today, the department enrols, on average, 96 optometry undergraduates annually, producing optometrists who rank in the top 10% of the profession.

While proud of the School’s prestigious reputation, Professor Votruba feels strongly about the need to develop further. “Every school of optometry in the UK needs to think about its future because nothing, however good it is, can stand still,” she explained.

“We cannot rest on our laurels, we have to be aware that everyone and everything moves on. Courses develop and we must move forward into the next decade,” she added.

Having worked within the School for over a decade, Professor Votruba has seen it evolve – this includes a relocation in 2007 to a new, tailor-made facility which is “absolutely fantastic for teaching and research,” she said.

Despite this multimillion pound move, the School finds itself “almost” at capacity in terms of the number of students that it can enrol each year.

Aligned with her strategic strategy for the department, Professor Votruba revealed: “We are currently thinking creatively about how we could expand all of our courses.” If the plans are successful, it could mean boosted undergraduate and postgraduate numbers, including a focus on international students.

However, Professor Votruba is keen to emphasise that this expansion will not come at the cost of the quality of education which the School currently delivers to its students. “We are aware that we have a very strong teaching tradition which we must not lose sight of. We have always trained to a very high standard and we have a good graduate employment record, which at this point is 100%,” she said.

“We do not want to sacrifice the quality experience and hands on, interactive teaching which staff offer, alongside a lot of personal tuition, for the sake of growth,” she added.   

Expansion is not something which will happen overnight, and there is a strategic plan which the Professor sees unfolding over “the next couple of years.”

“We are certainly not planning to grow rapidly or extensively. A little flexibility to broaden our offering is what we are looking for,” she said.

As a result, staff numbers would also rise. “We would like to increase staffing in partnership with increased intake. We have many excellent teachers here and we would like to recruit to continue to maintain that level of personal interaction.”

The road to translational research

Ambitions for the school under Professor Votruba’s leadership do not stop at honing the clinical skills of future optometrists. Research is strongly linked to education and is an element which she wishes to encourage in Cardiff students at an undergraduate level for a number of reasons.

Professor Votruba sees a continued emphasis on research as crucial for preparing optometry undergraduates for their future profession – a profession with ever-increasing opportunities for shared care pathways and independent prescribing. “It’s very important to encourage an enquiring approach to practice, and inspire students to think critically about new developments in terms of both treatments and equipment,” she explained. “I think that in the future optometrists in practice will be required to make far more decisions relating to the management of patients and we want to prepare our students for that now and help them develop the skills to do so.”

Professor Votruba has pinpointed final-year projects, which all third-year students must undertake, as an area where these skills can be reinforced. “We are currently reconfiguring the project so that it can be far more focused,” she explained.

“The project then works as both a teaching exercise for students in terms of how science works and is written up, but also as an educational tool which allows them to learn about a particular condition in great depth,” she added.

The School’s research agenda can also be reinforced by students being encouraged to undertake summer placements. “I’d like to encourage more students to take part in summer placements during their second year,” she said.

These placements involve a student seeking funding from various sources, such as the College of Optometrists, the Wellcome Trust or the Nuffield Foundation, for a six-to-eight week research project. “They get the opportunity to experience first-hand what research in vision sciences is really all about,” she enthused.

The future

Reflecting on what the School may look like in the next three–to–five years, Professor Votruba hopes to have guided the department towards many of her goals. “I would like to say that we have managed to grow the School slightly, that we will have maintained the excellent standards to which we teach, and that we will be on course to be thinking innovatively about how our courses are structured and taught to all students.”

Not neglecting her research ambitions, she concluded: “We certainly want to be contributing to world leading research in translational questions; things which are important to people in terms of the delivery of their interactions with eye care practitioners.”