Meet Optometry PhD student Vanessa Tang

Passionate about public health in Optometry, PhD student Vanessa Tang shares her experience in clinical work and her PhD focus on improving diabetic eye care.

Tang graduated from the Queensland University of Technology in 2016, where she undertook a Bachelor of Vision Sciences and a Master of Optometry. Following this, she relocated to Melbourne to pursue her first full-time job as a clinical optometrist at the Australian College of Optometry (ACO). After working clinically for two years, she began her PhD studies at the University of Melbourne.

Photograph of Vanessa TangBeginning her clinical career at a public health clinic, the Australian College of Optometry, instigated her passion for working with patients with vulnerable backgrounds.

“I find working in public health extremely rewarding, especially working in the community to address the issue of diabetic eye care.”

Tang enjoys a multi-faceted approach to Optometry. She believes researching, studying and teaching in parallel informs her learning as a clinician, and improves the quality of service she can provide.

“I love to see the direct impact of education at work,” Tang explained. “Research helps me to actively think about how to best help my patients; clinical work highlights the gaps in the literature, and teaching as a Clinical demonstrator helps to refine my clinical skills.”

“As a PhD researcher, you are constantly reading the literature. This has made me become more discerning when I go through my case history, such as asking patients about different risk factors. Applying my research in practice also helps me get a better clinical picture of patients’ overall health, as well as their eye health. I also try to take the time to explain the different aspects of their care to my patients.”

Photograph of Vanessa Tang at desk station

Although her current research is not directly related to Aboriginal eye care, prior to her PhD studies, Tang used to participate once or twice a year in outreach programs in the Northern Territory to provide eye care services for Indigenous Australians. “My passion for public health eye care and diabetes research, stems from my experience of it being a major concern for the Aboriginal population.”

Additionally, Tang has also participated in outreach programs at the ACO for people experiencing homelessness, refugees and those in supported residential services. “When we go on outreach, everything is portable and so we have to transport a suite of equipment to the site as you don’t have your usual eye clinic setup,” she shares. “Once onsite, you have to be adaptable and work with what you have. A typical day could be very busy or not very busy, but you are trying to run “a clinic” independently. You are the ‘receptionist, optometrist and optical dispenser’. It may feel chaotic, but the goal is to bring eye care to people who have difficulty access conventional eyecare services and this is extremely rewarding.”

Photograph of Vanessa Tang advertising survey

Tang’s supervisors are Professor Allison McKendrick, Associate Professor Andrew Symons and Associate Professor Daryl Guest. She also works in collaboration with Associate Professor Spiros Fourlanos and his team at the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Department of Diabetes and Endocrinology. She initially made contact with her main supervisor through a University of Melbourne alumni at her workplace.

“Professor McKendrick organised a meeting where she walked me through the process. She was very detailed in explaining the different projects and how to get started with the application process, which made it much easier.”

Tang’s PhD project centres on improving early detection of diabetes. As part of the early stages of her study, Tang conducted a survey investigating how optometrists, as primary care clinicians, currently screen for diabetic eye disease in Australia. As the second stage of her research, Tang has been running a program investigating novel approaches to measure diabetes in the eye and improve current early detection methods.

“This program involves using state-of-the-art eye retinal imaging equipment, which monitors the retinal blood supply and retinal layers,” Tang described. “We also are using a novel computer-based vision test, designed to assess how we can detect diabetic damage in the eye. Having access to this kind of equipment is one of the greatest benefits of undertaking a pre-designed PhD project.”

Larger scan of the retina with 3 superimposed smaller retinal blood capillary scans to measure neural layers and the retinal blood supply

Like many, most of Tang’s PhD journey has been challenging due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, she has felt supported and engaged throughout the process.

“The greatest highlight of my journey so far has been the support from my supervisors, who used their leadership and industry connections to allow me to able to thrive despite these challenging times, especially regarding recruitment of participants during this difficult time.” She added: “It has also been amazing to be part of the close-knit group of academics and researchers at the Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences. I’ve also expressed my interest to participate in the interdisciplinary program of vision and hearing screening for children with the Department of Audiology.”

Regarding future goals, Tang plans to continue working in the research sector, with a focus on public health.

“Throughout my PhD, I have felt as though there is so much scope left to cover in this area and so much more potential to learn.”

For students considering PhD studies, she advises the following:

“You should consider where you want to be and whether you can challenge yourself for the four years of your PhD journey. Four years is not too long in the grand scheme of life. You’re not just learning about your research topic, you’re learning about yourself and determining your future.”