Clare O’Donnell is Head of Eye Sciences at Optegra Eye Health Care – a UK specialist eye hospital group.
A registered optometrist with over 20 years’ clinical and academic experience, she is responsible for the not-for-profit research division within Optegra which is committed to the development of eye sciences and championing the latest innovations in eye care.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I was born in Glasgow and have lived in Manchester for the best part of 20 years. I initially trained as an optometrist and worked in community practice in Central Scotland before seizing an opportunity to move to New Zealand for a position at Auckland University.
I loved the whole experience and particularly enjoyed working in an academic environment, so on returning to the UK I took up a PhD studentship post at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.
From receiving my PhD, I moved on to manage the university-based eye clinic, and then took an academic post at the University of Manchester. A strong academic background and desire to put this into practical use led to my current role as Head of Eye Sciences at Optegra Eye Health Care. Alongside this role I also hold a part-time academic post as Reader at Aston University.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
The journey to where I am now started at an early age. I remember having a discussion with a careers advisor at high school and mentioning that I liked biological science subjects, and also the idea of an environment where I would be interacting with people that was related to healthcare and business.
We decided that optometry would be a good fit for my interests and skillset. Soon after, I took my younger brother for his first eye examination and was fascinated by the equipment they used and what it could show about the general health of the body. That cemented my interest! I did therefore plan my career, although inevitably my plans for a career in community optometry changed when new opportunities presented themselves.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Luckily, I honestly cannot think of too many real challenges! My career path has been so diverse and rewarding, I think I am very fortunate. Of course, things never happen as you expect and plan but I’ve seized opportunities when they have come along and made the most out of every role.
On a typical workday, how do you start your day and how does it end?
I really like the variety and flexibility of my role. For example, in a single day I start with a Conference call with Eye Sciences colleagues from China, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and the UK to discuss clinical outcomes. Then I could be meeting with our PhD students to discuss their research in dry eye or examining patients participating in an ophthalmological research study. I may spend the afternoon liaising with strategic partners in supporting ophthalmic education and working on presentations for international conferences. Late afternoon might be attending Skype meetings with colleagues from our management teams.
Tell us a little bit about your role and how did that come about?
After completing an MBA at Manchester Business School, I saw an advertisement for Head of Eye Sciences at a new eye hospital group, Optegra. Optegra Eye Sciences represents the not-for-profit arm of the organisation, which works to develop the latest in research in eye health care. I work closely with surgeon partners and optometrists in collating clinical data, evaluating new treatments and technologies and carrying out research projects in ophthalmology.
We are very keen to share our expertise and knowledge on eye healthcare with other professionals and so my role also involves preparing presentations for congresses, facilitating educational events and symposia for our staff, referral partners and other professionals.
Have you ever had a mentor or a sponsor or anyone who has helped your career?
I have had invaluable guidance and support from many individuals throughout my career from an academic tutor in my undergraduate degree, to my line manager at Auckland University, and from a trusted colleague and advisor at Manchester. I have continuous support from my colleagues at Optegra.
Support at every level is essential to keep you on track and help push your career forward and I have been lucky to have received guidance from some inspirational individuals who helped propel my work life to new levels.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
It’s important that women are heard and are visible in the organisation in which they work. My advice for anyone trying to make an impact in their workplace is don’t hold back – continually refine your skills, work hard, get involved, be visible and ask for what you need to find solutions to strategic problems for the business.
In the current climate, women can have a tougher job on their hands as they need to work that extra bit harder to have a voice. Until that changes, you just need to keep fighting.
How do you balance your work life and personal life?
There has to be a distinction between work and personal life. Although I am passionate about what I do, having the chance to unwind at the end of the day and on the weekend keeps me refreshed and ready for new challenges.
I schedule my hobbies into my week as I would a work appointment so that way I make sure that I can switch off. This is a mix of being active in terms of going to the gym and dance classes but also making sure that I plan ahead so I can travel and explore further afield.
Over the last five years, what would you say has been your biggest achievement?
A significant highlight for me was being awarded a major EU Grant to study dry eye. This is an ongoing study that I am working on at the moment at Optegra and with a number of fantastic academic partners. The plan is to engage in similar successful collaborations going forward!
Tell us about your plans for the future?
There are so many exciting research projects and innovations in eye healthcare that are on the horizon to explore and develop further, such as advances in AMD, micro-invasive glaucoma surgery and refractive surgery e.g. small incision lenticule extraction – which is in its early stages. My focus will be to grow these areas, expand the Eye Sciences team, and also to further the partnerships between Optegra as a specialist eye hospital group with optometric, academic and industry partners.