A Career In Academic Research: Vivek’s narrative

Dr Vivek Labhishetty

Hello folks, for those who don’t know me yet, I am Vivek & I graduated from Bausch & Lomb School of Optometry in the year 2011. When I was asked to write an article about my experience as a researcher (or should I say I was voluntold!) and about the pros and cons to choosing a career in scientific research, I must admit I had no idea what I would be writing about, as I am still getting used to this life as an academic researcher and there is a long way to go before I can advise on this topic. Instead, I have agreed to write about my journey so far…

Like any other, I have always aspired to become a good Clinical Optometrist. The pressure was greater as I was hoping to fill in my father’s shoes and take over his clinical practice after I graduated. However, things turned out to be different during my internship from what I actually planned to do upon my graduation. As I began to work on my undergrad project under the supervision of Dr. Shrikant R Bharadwaj, I started to look at Optometry and Vision Science from a different perspective. I would lie to you if I said that I instantly got connected to my research. At first, it was tough to look at things from a research perspective given that I am from a clinical background. I always thought I was a good Clinical Optometrist (although some of my senior colleagues would disagree with me on this :P) until I realized that I would be a better researcher than a clinician. I have always been curious about learning and understanding unfamiliar concepts and had a passion for problem-solving which led me to think of alternative career options. After a careful thought and with my mentor’s support and guidance, career in research appealed to me as an avenue that could fill in my curiosity and my quest for learning. Although it felt like a risky move at the time, I had to make a choice and so, I left a very formidable platform that my father provided me, to explore the unknown.

Things, however, looked much brighter as I progressed into my Masters followed by PhD at the University of Waterloo. I have to say it was an uphill battle given that I had to learn and garner a wider skillset to achieve my research goals. It was tough in the beginning, but I can at least say that I started looking at things in a much broader perspective than what I thought before entering the program.

My doctoral work went into understanding some basic questions related to Myopia Development and Progression. Being a myope myself further motivated me to learn and explore the causes behind this refractive condition. Myopia (or near sightedness) is a root cause for several changes that occur in the retina. One of the reasons why arresting myopia development and progression has been unsuccessful could be due to the lack of a comprehensive understanding about myopia. Correcting myopia with glasses or contact lenses is typically used to fix just a symptom (blurred vision at distance). There is more to myopia than just blurred vision.

Photograph taken at ARVO 2018, Hawaii where I presented the results from my PhD research which focused on understanding blur sensitivity in progressive myopic children. The poster was well received, and you do get that sense of accomplishment when well renowned scientists and experts in your field appreciate the research that you do. You tend to forget all the struggles and hardships that you might have endured during the process.

My research focused on understanding an altered oculomotor behavior associated with progressive myopia, the accommodation and vergence mechanisms and their interaction. The primary aim of my research was to provide an insight on why treatment options such as bifocals, PALs or accommodative exercises have been proven to be unsuccessful in arresting myopia development and progression. I believe my work has provided empirical evidence on how accommodation and vergence mechanisms are altered in children with progressive myopia and the potential causes which lead to the altered oculomotor behavior.

Apart from my research, I enjoyed my time teaching at the University of Waterloo as it kept me motivated and helped me realize that there’s a lot more to learn and explore. Besides teaching and research, I was also actively involved in intramural sports and graduate student organizations. If I must give one suggestion, this is it: ‘Try to get into sports while doing your grad studies or research’. Every individual has their own version of a stress-buster, it was sports for me. I have to say that I have played several newer sports after going to Waterloo. I think sports was indeed one of the main reasons I survived my PhD. Travelling and exploring new places was another thing that kept me going during my grad studies. Research can be frustrating sometimes but I feel it’s totally worth it.

Photograph from the recent travel diaries at the beautiful Flowerpot Island located in the middle of one of the largest freshwater lakes, Lake Huron. This road trip was special because I was exploring places such as this across Canada along with my parents.

I haven’t really planned out what I will be doing in the next 5 or 10 years, but what I do know is that I will continue in this path as long as I enjoy the work I do. I really like exploring new areas of research and teaching students. If you ask me where I see myself in the future, I would like to see myself as a successful academic researcher (explore and educate!!).

Lastly, I heard a lot of people associate words such as sacrifice, depression, boredom, insanity etc. to grad studies, I would say just ignore them. If you really think this is something you want to do, just go for it. In the end, you can always go back to practice if you don’t want to continue your career in research. This way at least you won’t regret 10 years down the line that you did not try something that you wanted to just because you feared the risk it involved.  There are ample opportunities available and thankfully, we have our alumni who actively update us on the opportunities available across the globe. They are always around to help and guide us. I would like to end my story by saying ‘Just enjoy and explore the things that you like’ and my best wishes to all ALOians out there.

Dr Vivek Labhishetty is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. He graduated from Bausch & Lomb School of Optometry in the year 2011 and was awarded the Best Outgoing Student and the inaugural Prof. Navaneeth Rao Gold medal for his perfect 10 CGPA. He, then went onto pursue his Masters leading to PhD at the University of Waterloo, Canada & holds a record of receiving Dr Emerson Woodruff Graduate Scholarship for the five consecutive years and had been awarded with Day Tech Award for the Best Grad presentation both for his Masters (2014) & PhD (2017) thesis presentation. He also received the Dean of Science Best Masters Thesis Award at the 2015 University of Waterloo spring convocation ceremony and recently received his Doctoral degree for his research on “Understanding the sensory and motor behavior of accommodation in children with progressive myopia.”

Edited by 

Ms Deepika Kommanapalli

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