Smart Phones and Laptops have revolutionised the way we live. But they have also put an enormous strain on our visual faculties, requiring the ability to read closer for long periods of time.

Atanu Ghosh, our next pathbreaker, through his research on Myopia or nearsightedness, which has become a significant global public health and socioeconomic problem, aims to provide insights into the optical changes in the eye while performing typical near tasks like viewing digital devices.

Atanu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about choosing to do a Clinical Fellowship at LVPEI over a well paying job, that shaped his research career in Clinical Optometry.

For students, at every stage of your life, you would face choices. Do not make decisions for the short-term, keep your vision in mind and focus on the long term.

Atanu, tell us about your background?

I am a Clinical Optometrist and Vision Scientist. I studied Optometry in India, and pursued a PhD in Brisbane in Australia. Then, I joined the University of Rochester in New York to do a Post-Doctoral Fellowship. I returned to Australia in 2015, and we were blessed with a newborn in 2016. Since then I have been so busy with the little one. Currently, I live in Brisbane with my family and am enjoying the lifestyle in Australia. I work hard during the weekdays (Mon-Fri), but party harder on weekends. I play tennis every Sunday morning with my friends and go to the gym at least two days a week. Most of the days, I cook dinner at home. I have a good collection of cookbooks written by renowned authors, as I am not a big fan of cooking recipes on YouTube. A Swedish scientist friend of mine tried my food and loved it, his comment was remarkably interesting! He stated, “most of the scientists who are good in the laboratory are also very efficient at cooking.” Other than cooking, I also pursue other hobbies like photography, golf. But nowadays I have very limited time to explore everything that I wish to do. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For graduation I studied Optometry in India. Fort post-graduation, I did a PhD in optometry and vision science, in Australia. I studied bachelor’s in Optometry and Vision Science in College of Techno India – Salt Lake, Kolkata. This was a brand new course introduced by the West Bengal University of Technology. I had spent a full year in Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai for my final year internship, then I was selected for a clinical fellowship program at L V Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI), Hyderabad, through a highly competitive entrance test. After completion of my fellowship program, the LVPEI directors offered me a fully sponsored research fellowship program at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. In 2008, I relocated to Sydney to begin my research career. During this time, I started learning how to design research methodology, how to write research protocols, etc; eventually I fell in love with research and decided to continue my career as a researcher. I earned a PhD from Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia in 2012.

During the PhD, I investigated the role of optical and biomechanical factors in myopia or nearsightedness progression in young children.   

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

To be very honest, my early career started with a failure. I passed 10th standard with decent scores and enrolled as a science student in Ramakrishna Mission, but my academic performance declined over time which resulted in an ordinary score in 10+2 standard. It is no secret that complacency was the main culprit, though I am glad that it happened in the early stage of my career. My JEE medical ranking was not good enough for me to get a seat in a govt medical college in India. On the other hand, our financial status was not good enough at that time to afford studying medicine in a private college. But since I wanted to be a health care practitioner at any cost, I did a substantial amount of research to develop a good understanding of the course curriculum and career prospects of a few different healthcare related courses and I found that Optometry was one of the fastest growing healthcare professions in India, particularly in South India. While optometry was listed as one of the developing professions in India, it was one of the top five occupations in the USA, Australia and Canada. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completion of my graduation, I was offered a good job as a Clinical Optometrist in a renowned eye institute in India. At the same time I was selected to do a Clinical Fellowship at LVPEI in Hyderabad. I hesitated to make a decision. So I took a 2-week break and visited my family in Kolkata. There were differences in opinion, while my family members encouraged me to accept the job offer, my mentors suggested that I take up the fellowship in Hyderabad. My job was offering me a salary of 15K/month whereas my fellowship offered me a living allowance of 1,300/month. While it was a very tough decision to make, I finally relocated to Hyderabad to do the fellowship. I think it was a wise decision and that was a turning point in my career that changed the course of my work and life.   

My clinical training at Hyderabad was extraordinarily good that allowed me to strengthen my expertise in comprehensive eye health examinations, patient care management, greater understanding of ocular diseases, operating sophisticated high-tech ophthalmic instruments and interpreting of various tests results. In addition to examining the patients at clinics, I had to attend lectures every morning starting at 7 am. All clinical staff needed to attend those lectures, the presentations included but were not limited to, case studies, journal articles, understanding of biostatistics, etc. I started getting a flavour of research in Optometry and Vision Science, my interest in research began to grow since then. 

When I was doing my clinical fellowship in Hyderabad, I noticed prevalence of myopia was steadily increasing in the younger population that was affecting socio-economic status of many countries including India. Myopia was also known to be associated with other vision threatening eye diseases like retinal detachment, glaucoma. Since last two decades, slowing myopia progression in young children has become a top priority for clinical optometrists across the globe. I was fully motivated to pursue a research career in order to develop a better understanding of the mechanism of myopia development and progression in the children and find new strategies for treatment that could slow down the progression of this eye disorder in children. When I was approaching the end of my fellowship program, I was offered an exclusive scholarship from LVPEI to pursue a research fellowship in Sydney. Within the first 12 months of my research program in Sydney I fell in love with research and myopia or near-sightedness became my primary area of interest for research. 

When I was doing my fellowship in Sydney, I got an opportunity to meet one of the World’s renowned myopia scientists in Brisbane. I came to Brisbane to meet him, and he immediately made me an offer to join his laboratory at Queensland University of Technology. I have received double scholarships, a tuition fee waiver and living allowance, from the university for 4 years in order to pursue my PhD here in Australia. During my PhD, I’ve won a few awards and scholarships. One of the most prestigious awards was the travel fellowship that I received from American Ophthalmology Society to attend and present my research work in an international meeting in Florida. I published my research outcome in peer reviewed journals and presented my work at both domestic and international meetings.  In 2014, I joined visual optics laboratory in the University of Rochester in New York that is known to be World’s best optics institute. Rochester Laboratory developed world’s first and most efficient adaptive optics system, using the similar working principle of Hubble telescope, that enabled direct visualisation of individual photoreceptors cells of the retina. My role at Rochester involved investigating optical mechanism of myopia progression and come up with the novel optical designs for the ophthalmic devices like contact lenses that can slowdown the myopia progression in the children. My research career was flourishing in the USA but my wife was struggling to find a job there due to her current immigration status at that time. I completed my research project in the USA and returned to Australia, and rejoined QUT with an interesting research project. I took a role of a project lead role at QUT to manage a commercial project with an intention to design and develop a next generation smart contact lens, in collaboration with Johnson and Johnson Vision Care, Florida. A good balance between life and career is always important to me. If I am asked to choose one of the two options such as, 1) to become a renowned scientist, but an average husband and parent, versus 2) to become a good scientist, a good husband and a good parent, I will always pick the second option. I’m now midway in my career path, I expect to continue my journey for another 25-30 years, and my life/career stories might be different after 30 years in comparison to what I have written here. After my retirement, I will have to revisit my career path and write this interview once again, but I hope one factor will remain unchanged, i.e. happiness.

How did you get your first break?

It has always been very competitive to receive an international scholarship to do a PhD in Australia. The three key factors that may be important to get such scholarships are, 1) a good GPA score, I had a GPA of 9.23. 2) previous publication in a peer reviewed journal or presentation in a scientific meeting – I did present my Sydney research work in an international meeting, my research abstract won a travel fellowship award, 3) a good research proposal for your PhD – I did a substantial literature review to find new research questions and then wrote a nice research proposal on myopia that could have been carried out in a laboratory at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Initially, I was struggling to write academic style English during my PhD. My supervisor taught me to write small sentences with simple language. He shared his opinion with me that since science can be overly complex to digest for readers in the first place, we should not make it more complicated with complex English language. I did attend a few workshops within the University to learn how to write academic English, eventually my scientific writing ability improved. I published three papers in peer reviewed journals within the first two years of my PhD, so by the time I started writing the PhD thesis my writing ability improved significantly. 

Challenge 2: Time management and meeting deadlines are important for your PhD. According to the university’s protocol, I had to complete three research projects during PhD. Each research project required multiple pilot studies for proof of concepts, then drafting research protocol, risk and benefit assessments and research ethics application, so it is a systematic process that needs to be done in the right order, prior to each project being commenced. I was using a custom made excel based time management planner to track my own progress during the PhD. I also met my supervisors every week to present my weekly progress report. I experienced a few hurdles to meet deadlines during the first year of my PhD, then my organizational skills improved over a period, and I finally completed my PhD within three and half years.

Where do you work now?

I’m currently working full time at Queensland Eye Institute (QEI) in Brisbane. My roles at QEI involve both clinical services and research work. As a clinician, my primary role here is to examine pediatric patients for their refractive error corrections, strabismus evaluation, neuro-ophthalmic assessments. My primary research interests are in myopia control, visual behavior and eye tracking, retinal diseases and imaging, visual psychophysics and adaptive optics. You will require different sets of skills for clinical work and research. Some of the important skills for clinical practice may include, arriving at the clinic on time, good communication skills with the patients, doing clinical tests quickly and efficiently in a busy clinic. For a research role, you must have a good time management plan, there may be days or weeks when there may be no one watching you or reviewing your work, so you need to self-evaluate your work and progress accordingly. In a typical clinical setup you may work independently whereas in the research world it is very important to collaborate with others in order to conduct high quality research. To work at the clinic, you need to follow a routine, on the other hand, to become a good scientist, you need to be innovative. I’m enjoying my roles as both a clinician and a researcher, switching my attitudes according to the type of job that I’m required to do, so I have never felt bored with my work and career.

How does your work benefit society? 

Myopia or nearsightedness has become a significant global public health and socioeconomic problem. My PhD thesis is aimed at providing new insights into the optical and biometric changes in the eye while performing typical near tasks and to investigate the potential influence of near tasks (for example, viewing digital devices such as phones or computers or laptops) in myopia development and progression in younger populations. During my PhD, I made an attempt to design a novel ophthalmic spectacle lens that could potentially slow-down myopia progression in children. We have filed a patent application to protect the idea. My PhD research work was also partly utilized to design novel myopia control contact lenses for children.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I have given lectures in several national and international meetings, I was also invited as a guest speaker to deliver lectures on myopia at State University of New York, New York, New England College of Optometry, Boston, and many other World’s renowned institutes. But one of my favourite talks I gave in 2018 in my town – Kolkata, to a group of young enthusiastic optometrists, was a fantastic feeling!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You must always have two separate set of goals, short-term goals and long-term goals. My short-term goals are typically a list of tasks that need to be done within the next 6 months, whereas my long-term goals can be what I want to accomplish in the next 10 years’ time. Please keep them separate. You must focus on short-term goals, at the same time keep an eye on your long-term goals. For example, a short-term goal for you may be that you want to pass the 10th standard exams with high scores/marks. In order to achieve this, you need to focus on your studies and work hard. On the other hand, your long-term goal may be that you want to be the CEO of a start-up company that will have capacities to design and manufacture biomedical devices. A good academic career may help you to get a job in a well renowned organization but you may need to have some additional skills/qualities within you to achieve your second goal, that is to become a CEO of a company. With a good academic career and technical knowledge, you will be able to grow to a certain extent, but then you will see no through road. To climb the ladder and reach the top of the pyramid, you must acquire additional skills, people management is one of them. Other skills may include, learning different languages, knowledge in international cuisines, your hobbies (other than reading textbooks), like playing tennis or cricket or golf, photography, climbing a mountain, reading biographies (Steve Jobs is one of my favourites)  – these are some examples of the typical hobbies, but you won’t be criticized if you don’t like any of these activities. The right levels of communications are important for any kind of leadership role. Prepare yourself in case you might be responsible for conducting a dinner meeting as a chairperson where you have to communicate with ten guest members from different ethnic backgrounds, and initiate a topic of discussion that won’t be related to work, but will have some common interests for everyone to be engaged in the discussion. 

Do one thing at a time, don’t try to accomplish everything in one go! You may not want to play tennis, cricket and golf at the same time. There is nothing wrong if your main career goal is to become a good engineer and get a decent job, my point is that you may want to acquire some additional skills that may help you to develop your interpersonal skills as well as  good communication skills. Learning photography does not mean that you are required to be a professional photographer in the future. 

If you want to be more organized, create a time-table in an excel sheet with a list of tasks that are required to be accomplished within next 12 months, and mark them periodically with different colors as they progress from start point to the endpoint, finally you would be able to see whether you were successful in meeting your deadlines for the individual tasks. To accomplish any goal/task efficiently, you need to balance two things at the same time, timeline and quality. You cannot compromise one for another.  

Follow your heart, don’t be afraid of failure, you must try new things when you are young. If you have more than two options to choose from, ask your heart what you would enjoy doing, don’t worry about what others might think about it. By all means, don’t hesitate to take suggestions from others, but finally you must make your own decision. 

Surround yourself by good people, it is important who your friends are and what kind of attitude they have. Try to avoid those who have a negative attitude and demotivate you all the time. If you accept new challenges in your life, you will require a lot of encouragement from others. When you take a new role or challenge, you may not have the right set of skills at the beginning, but a continuous encouragement from outside and your self-motivation and obviously your tremendous hard work will allow you to accomplish your goals. 

Finally, there are two main key drivers for your success, (1) good health, and (2) a clean mind. No matter what happens to your career, please do not compromise with these two important ingredients throughout your life journey.