If ‘Eye’ Could Go Back Series Featuring Dr. Jennifer Lyerly

Welcome to the first article in this new series focusing on the impact women have in the field of optometry. Since this is the “birth day” of this series, let me quickly introduce you to “If ‘Eye’ Could Go Back” and myself. I’m an optometry student at Western University of Health Sciences in Southern California. As I go through my journey in becoming the best optometrist I can be, I have come to realize that there are so many women in this profession that I’ve learned from and who have shaped who I am. Women are changing the profession every single day and there is so much we can learn from each other. I hope as this series further develops, we are able to share and learn from each other, because every woman I’ve come across so far has had something amazing to share and I’ve been lucky enough to have learned so much from them. I hope you take away something as well.

When I thought about first starting this series and the impact I wanted to make, the first person I thought of was Dr. Jennifer Lyerly. I have been so lucky to know her and the impact and drive she has to recognize the women in this field made her my choice for the first ever “If ‘Eye’ Could Go Back”. Along with all of the impact she has made in the optometry profession through varies media campaigns, running Defocus Media with fellow optometrist Dr. Glover, and her work as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Southern College of Optometry (which she graduated from in 2011), Dr. Lyerly has also written articles for Review of Optometry, Invision Magazine, and been a contributor for O: The Oprah Magazine. In 2015 she was recognized as a leading innovator in Vision Monday’s 50 Most influential Women in Optical. The list of how she amazes me gets longer everyday.

What is your biggest proudest accomplishment in the optometric world?

Dr. Lyerly:  I’ve been so humbled and honored to be recognized by my peers and colleagues in optometry during my young career.  The biggest honor has been being asked to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Southern College of Optometry, my alma mater. When SCO President Dr. Lewis Reich called me to see if I would be willing to take on this responsibility, I was so moved by his request and his mission to make the college more inclusive and diverse.  He and the other leaders at the school recognized that leadership in optometry often looks very different in age, gender, race, and background from the student body population. He asked me to represent the voices, concerns, and values of the students and young graduates of Southern College of Optometry in planning and discussions about the college’s future to help better align with the needs of future generations.  To be able to serve my peers and the young optometrists graduating after me in this way means so much, and I’m dedicated to making a true difference in this mission. 

Do you see a change coming in the profession that is recognizing a younger more diverse generation?

Dr. Lyerly:  Absolutely! The numbers don’t lie: The American Optometric Association reports that 67.8% of full time, enrolled optometry school students in the United States were female in the 2017-2018 calendar year, and 43% of all practicing optometrists in the US are women.  These demographics are rapidly changing and the industry is faced with making adjustments to accommodate the new workforce quickly. Just a decade ago, females only made up 20.5% of practicing optometrists in America. 

The biggest place I see change happening right now is with our industry partners recognizing the value of working with young and student optometrists.  Where a few years ago it was not uncommon to be told “you’re too young” by industry when it came to speaking or writing opportunities, now I see young doctors representing causes and brands across social media and industry publications. Industry and optometric organizations are more aware that when they have a panel of only white male doctors, they aren’t representative of optometry’s real makeup, and therefore won’t be effective at connecting with the doctors they are trying to represent. If you have a passion for optometry, there’s no better time to have your voice heard as a young, minority, or female optometrist. 

What kind of further changes do you see or hope to see in the future of optometry?

Dr. Lyerly:  My husband (who’s not in the industry) asked me what my five year goal was for my career recently.  I told him that five years in optometry was way too far in advance to be looking.  My hope is that all of the change going on in healthcare and industry trends make for a stronger profession. One where the public sees a stronger value in the ocular health care that we provide; one where students see a return on the financial investment they’ve made in additional schooling with a lifestyle and take-home pay that reflects the work they put in to this profession.  I want to see us embrace technology that will enhance our ability to connect individually with patients and expand access to care, but that never compromises on what matters most, which is the health and quality of care we provide to our patients. 

Who would you say has inspired you to have reached the place where you are today?

Dr. Lyerly:  I’ve had so many mentors, but the person that really changed my career in optometry was Dr. Alecia Barnes.  When I was a new graduate OD, I worked with her for several months in the same practice. She was doing all sorts of unique and custom contact lenses with her patients, and I felt really overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know about the lenses she was fitting. One day she asked me if I had ever fit a scleral contact lens; I was embarrassed and admitted that I hadn’t and didn’t know hardly anything about them.  To my surprise she said, “Me neither! We can learn it together!” We fit our very first scleral lens for a patient that afternoon! Seeing her tackle something new with so much enthusiasm really motivated me to realize that it was okay that I didn’t know everything.  My patients just needed me to be willing to keep learning and keep thinking outside the box to solve their problems.  It’s a practice mentality that is at the core of my entire professional life now.  

You have been lucky enough to have been given a voice in the profession, what do you hope to be able to accomplish with this voice?

Dr. Lyerly:  When I was younger I was the type of person that felt like I needed to “wait my turn” to have a voice and opinion; I liked to sit in the back row and be that person that listened. I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear from a doctor my age. But what I realized as I started working and attending more conferences and events was that people were constantly making decisions about my career and how I was going to practice without my input.  Why should I sit back and watch the future of my career be decided by people that aren’t affected by these decisions?  I love being able to fight for people like myself to have a chance to have a voice, because I know we have so much of value to say!  

Before you start a project or goal, what is it that keeps you motivated to follow through?

Dr. Lyerly:  When I give my word to do something, I always want to deliver a final result that speaks to who I am as a person. If I’m not proud of my work, it’s the same as not being proud of who I am. I put (probably too much) stress on myself to be the very best I can be, whether that’s answering an email or giving a continuing education lecture. 

Other than in the field of optometry, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?

Dr. Lyerly:  Being a mother has been the most rewarding and difficult thing that I’ve ever done! Every day that I wake up and make my daughter smile and see her learn new things I feel like I’m doing the most important thing a person could do on this earth. 

As the profession continues to progress, so does this powerhouse that is Dr. Lyerly. And as I start to embark on my journey to find my own place in this profession like many young women my age, I asked one last question:

If you could go back before you started this journey, what would you tell yourself?