Over the past decade, scientists have explored the impact of positive-to-negative interaction ratios in our work and personal life. This ratio can be used to predict everything from workplace performance to divorce. Some research even suggests that individuals with a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions tend to have more successful life outcomes.
In this context, there are many negative outliers in various industries. For example, with respect to the medical industry, there are some who suggest the main motivator for doctors is financial, particularly as they are in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry, or they are only interested in a quick fix, not the health of patients. It would be pollyanish to assume the medical industry doesn’t have a few lamentable individuals who exhibit behavior that is more than a bit egregious. However, I will focus on the millions of individuals working in the medical industry – doctors, nurses, researchers, and investors – for whom a commitment and passion to cure patients is their motivator.
One such individual is John Ubels, a Ph.D. physiologist who has committed to helping others by supporting the next generation of students through education, granting underprivileged communities access to eye care, and educating consumers about their product options.
First, Dr. Ubels believes that, if we hope to encourage undergraduates to consider careers in research and medicine, we “need to place an emphasis on research as part of the undergraduate curriculum.” After teaching and doing research in medical schools for the first 15 years of his career, Dr. Ubels returned to his undergraduate alma mater, Calvin College, because he wanted to teach undergraduates to do research. Since there are neither graduate students nor post-docs in the biology department at Calvin, all of his research has been done with undergraduate assistants who are involved in all aspects of research. His involvement with undergraduate students is notable and he recounts that, to date, 56 students have worked with him, co-authoring 38 publications. By the end of the academic year 52 of them will have gone on to graduate school, medical school, dental school and optometry school; including 14 optometrists and 2 ophthalmologists. He shares that, “Working with these wonderful young people has been the highlight of my career, and they have made a unique contribution to the field of research on the tear film and ocular surface.”
Many would agree with Dr. Ubels in that the undergraduate experience is greatly enriched by attaining research experience early and often, and in fact, a recently published study (Mentor magazine)
demonstrated this empirically for a variety of disciplines, including but not limited to engineering (Narayanan, 1999), and medicine (Murdoch-Eaton et al., 2010). What are the benefits for undergraduate students who get involved in research? Dr. Ubels argues that said involvement benefits the students and ultimately, the industry and patients because it a research experience allows undergraduate students to better understand published works, learn to balance collaborative and individual work, determine an area of interest, and jump start their careers as researchers.
Unfortunately, at this point in time, most undergraduate students are not yet welcomed into the labs at large universities and medical schools, either as summer interns or as assistants during the academic year. John referenced some sources of support for such programs such as the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, Sigma Xi undergraduate grants especially for eye research, Fight for Sight summer student grants, and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholars Program. He encourages the National Eye Institute to “place emphasis on funding Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA, R15)” at smaller colleges and universities, since these grants emphasize undergraduate research.
Another focus for Dr. Ubels is volunteering in low-income communities in Mexico where people have no access to eye care. For example, he, along with an ophthalmologist and optometrist, takes undergraduate students during January term to Tijuana, Mexico to give eye exams and distribute used glasses for free. Unfortunately, at this point, they are not able to treat eye disease or operate but he is hopeful that volunteerism will be taken to the next level.
Lastly, Dr. Ubels would like to see more patient advocacy surrounding products safety. Within the food industry, for instance, companies are reformulating iconic products and introducing new ones to appeal to todays’ conscientious consumers by taking a stand against dangerous additives or unethical standards. In the health industry however, products that potentially have negative repercussion are still being sold. As someone who has worked in the industry for so many years developing artificial tears, Dr. Ubels argues that a big concern we need to address is that generic eye drops still have benzalkonium chloride (BAC) as an ingredient. Not only is this product toxic but it also works against the benefit of the artificial tears by exacerbating dry eye and countering the benefits associated with the drops. In fact, NCBI published that BAK has consistently demonstrated its toxic effects in laboratory, experimental, and clinical studies. This compound causes an increased incidence of adverse events with BAK (tear film instability) whereas its withdrawal reduces these effects.
Dr. Ubels suggests that, since they are the end face to the patient, pharmacies and retail shops selling eye products be reached through doctors, education advocates NGOs such as TFOS. Some patients develop a trust-based relationship with their pharmacist and as such, they play a crucial role in advising which products should be used.
Even though Dr. Ubels is facing retirement, he’s still steadfastly educating young doctors and those in the eye health industry – hence his prominent role on the TFOS DEWS II subcommittee, Public Awareness and Education. In his free time, he will be researching parasites in fish retinas, which brings him back full-circle to his entry into the ophthalmic field. As a child, biology was his passion and he began his undergraduate studies as an aspiring fishery biologist, but the influence of graduate school professor Dr.Jack Hoffert, with whom John did research on fish retinas, compelled him to switch tracks, do a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Henry Edelhauser and spend his career conducting clinically related eye research, moving from the retina to the cornea.
TFOS Staff Writer