It’s that time of year again…when the air feels a bit crisper, the pea coat is pulled out of the closet and New England transforms into a Norman Rockwell painting, full of rich, warm colors contrasted by the deep blue Charles River. Behind the iron gates of the New England College of Optometry, a new kind of excitement rises. With winter fast approaching, students whisper among themselves behind mahogany walls and professors gather in the lunchroom to plot their next plan of action.
A prospective student walks beside his tour guide, puzzled, as he follows him toward the next classroom. Taking the guide aside he asks: “What is going on?” The tour guide furtively glances to his side to ensure there is no one else around, leans in closely and confides: “Why it’s only the most exciting event of the year! It’s the time when optometrists from all over the country, nay, from all around the world converge for one week. You can attend lectures on every optometry topic imaginable, from contact lenses to pediatrics to even business management. There are meetings and alumni receptions, and let’s not forget the famous Australia party, where everyone gathers for live music and free food!” The prospective student stops in his tracks, suitably impressed. Before he can utter another word, the tour guide whisks him into the rotunda, pushing through a throng of other students. High above, a glorious banner billows from the first-floor railing, proudly announcing: “Join NECO faculty and students at American Academy of Optometry Annual Meeting, 2014, Denver CO.”
This November, I was able to attend the Academy convention. Leaving NECO behind for a few days, I was excited as the airplane wheels skidded across the runway until we finally came to a stop at Denver International Airport. My three friends and I immediately delved into our purses for our iPhones to snap numerous photos of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains (with a few selfies while we’re at it). As we rushed off the plane, eager to meet our taxi, my friend shouted “Laura, your poster!” Reversing course, I quickly snatched the poster case from the jaws of the overhead bin. It was this poster that won me the Elmer H. Eger Memorial Student Travel Fellowship to attend the Academy meeting. This is one of a number of Academy-administered travel fellowships for which students presenting at the meeting can apply to offset expenses once their submissions are accepted for presentation.
Arriving in Denver with fellow NECO student presenters
After quickly freshening up in our hotel, we arrived in time to attend our first lecture of the conference entitled “OCT Choroidal Imaging” to which my friend and I snagged the last two tickets. Afterwards, we headed over to the Luxottica student party where students from all over the country mingled, dined and danced to the dueling piano players on top of the stage. While surveying the crowd, I began to recognize faces from the American Optometric Association (AOA) meeting in Philadelphia and Vision Expo West in Vegas and mingled with Northeast Luxottica reps that I had met last week at the NECO trade show. It felt so rewarding to be part of the optometric community!
The following morning, I awoke early, partly due to the time change, but primarily due to the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. Today was my designated “Poster Session” day! After tying the bow on a favorite silk blouse and smoothing out my skirt, I scooped up my poster and jetted out the door. As I sprinted through the convention hall to be on time for the Student Fellowship Breakfast, I observed as optometrists busily traversed the halls of the convention center, filing into various lecture halls for the first classes of the morning.
After the vice president of the AAO welcomed us to Denver and reviewed the list of requirements to receive our Student Fellowship (a recognition given to students who participate in a certain number of lectures, business meetings, poster/paper sessions and symposia) I once again rushed off to my next lecture. This one was entitled: “Why do we need another photoreceptor? Clinical implications of melanopsin-containing retinal ganglion cells”, a familiar topic since it was the subject of my undergraduate thesis at Lafayette College. But even more importantly, this was my opportunity to finally meet Dr. Ignacio Provencio, a featured speaker of the event as well as the mentor of my undergraduate advisor, Professor James Dearworth, at Lafayette College. Once again, the world of science became a little smaller.
It was nearing 4 o’clock and on to the next session, the poster presentation of my research in Dr. Rucker’s lab entitled: “Atropine Confers More Protection Against Myopia Progression with Luminance Flicker”. Through our research, we are trying to understand how different substances affect the pathways for emmetropization (focusing) during development. We hope that our work may someday lead to a better treatment of myopia progression in children. After two hours of explaining my research to visitors, it was finally time to call it a day; and I nearly fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Presenting the poster of my research with Dr. Rucker
Friday was spent attending lectures and pursuing a more relaxed, easy-going pace. We even took time out to explore the exhibits, learning about the latest equipment and getting pictures taken on the “blue carpet” like local celebrities. At 7 pm, my friends and I hurried across the street to the Hyatt Hotel to attend the NECO alumni reception and later the Australia party. As we entered the reception room for the NECO alumni reception, I was stunned at the number of people occupying the small space. Everyone from residents to current NECO preceptors to students and alumni was present; at least a 50-year-span of NECO associates stood before us. Moments like these, everyone reuniting in good spirits, make all the hard work back in Boston worthwhile! Afterwards, we headed over to the Australia party where we danced the night away to flowing Foster’s and a live band composed of actual optometrists!
At last, it was Saturday, the day we were finally able to enjoy the city of Denver…see the sights, learn the history. Unfortunately, with below-freezing temperatures and snow-filled streets, we opted for an indoor restaurant recommended by a local young optometrist. This restaurant named “Vine Street Pub” is known for its excellent burritos, hand-cut fries, and local brews of Denver. After eating so much we could barely move, we continued to the center of the city. There we explored all the shopping and dessert shops Denver had to offer. Feeling a buzz from my phone, I opened a text message stating that we had won tickets in a student raffle to the Fellowship Banquet concluding the convention. Who could blame us for sprinting to the mall to select new dresses for the evening gala?
When we arrived at the banquet, the room that only a night before was packed with dancing optometrists and coats lining the walls, was transformed into an elegant reception hall with tables adorned with floral centerpieces and replete with young optometrists and recently-awarded fellows clad in floor-length ball gowns and sleek black suits. It appeared as if Cinderella was given the chance to step into the world of the most elite of the optometry world, even for one night. As we enjoyed a wonderful three-course dinner, we enthusiastically applauded the over 250 optometrists inducted into the hallowed halls of fellowship. For those unaware of what a fellow is, it is someone who completes a list of requirements after graduation from an optometry program which includes posters, papers, case studies , an oral exam, and, in some cases, residency. Suddenly, the clock struck midnight and soon our ball gowns would transform back into jeans and sweaters.
In the blink of an eye, we were once again boarding the plane departing to Boston. Tired from the hectic week, my friends dozed almost immediately as the plane lifted from the “Mile High” soil. Staring down upon the snow-capped Rockies one last time, I mused: “What a whirl-wind of a semester, from Vegas to KMK board review, to Denver!” With a sense of accomplishment and sigh of relief, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep…until we meet again in Denver at the 2015 Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) meeting!