Celebrating Women's History
Ngozi Chidi-Egboka, OD, MPH, PhD - Becoming a clinician par excellence
Ngozi Chidi-Egboka, OD, MPH, PhD, is a therapeutically trained optometrist and has practiced as a clinical optometrist and lecturer in Nigeria before relocating to Australia to complete her PhD at UNSW, Sydney, Australia. Chidi-Egboka’s passion for education and research prompted her to obtain a Master of Public Health (MPH), Fellowship in Cornea and Contact Lenses at Nigerian College of Optometrists (FNCO), and Fellowship of the American Academy of Optometry (FAAO). Ngozi has recently completed her PhD on her research interest, characterizing the ocular surface in children and examining the relationship with blinking and smartphone use. She is an academic and clinical trial investigator at the School of Optometry and Vision Science, Faculty of Medicine and Health, UNSW Sydney.
Ngozi is a recipient of several higher degree research awards including the prestigious 2022 UNSW Graduate Research School Dean's Excellent Thesis Award, UNSW Medicine and Health Faculty Prize: The Brian Kirby Prize for Research Excellence in Optometry in 2022, 2019/2020 Dorothy Carlborg Cornea and Contact Lens Society of Australia award, 2021 Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) Science Communication Training Fellowship, and 2022 Ambassador, Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) Catalyst program of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), Australia. Ngozi contributes to the international research community as an author, scientific meeting presentations, and invited reviewer for reputable ophthalmology journals. She participates actively in Women-in-STEM programs, peer mentoring, and post-graduate career development leadership committee at UNSW. She is a mother to two wonderful children.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born and raised in Eastern Nigeria before I relocated with my parents and siblings to North Central Nigeria after my high school education.
As a young girl growing up I wanted to be a medical doctor. During my high school days, as much as I embraced all the science subjects that are required for me to become a doctor, I was also passionate about non-science subjects. Thus, I took up selective subjects at different year levels in accounting, economics, government and social studies. My academic performances in these subjects stirred up thoughts in me that I could excel in other fields if peradventure I’m unable to make it into medical school.
I grew up with the habit of being at my best in every endeavour. I always aspire and derive fulfillment from having outstanding performance in both curricular and co-curricular activities. My career interest is to become a top-notch clinician, academic, researcher and mentor. I’m very passionate about being a role model and mentor to young and upcoming scientists and clinicians, especially people from countries with limited resources like in the African continent. My personal life interest is to travel to selected countries around the world with my family.
How did you get into the eye and vision field?
My decision to study optometry was born out of my desire to lessen the burden of visual impairment in my local community in Nigeria. I believe that “the eye is the window to the world, and therefore needs to be preserved to view the world better.” Upon completing my Doctor of Optometry degree, I set four main professional goals for myself. The first was to gain a broad optometry clinical skill set through professional practice, and the five years post-graduation saw me fulfilling this goal through private and public practice experiences. My second goal was to bring change in the provision of community eye care in Nigeria, which was brought into sharp focus during my clinical practice. In response, I enrolled in a Master of Public Health program to gain an understanding of public health practice and to be better equipped for community eye care in Nigeria. During this time, I participated in community-based free eye care screenings and analysing data to identify gaps in strategic eye health planning. This led to my own studies on eye care practices, visual function and photostress recovery time in commercial drivers. This experience also piqued my interest in the importance of academic study of vision health on a community level.
My public practice experience also exposed me to the high prevalence of eye problems among children, which could have been corrected with contact lenses. As such, I was motivated to enroll in residency training in the Faculty of Cornea and Contact Lenses, Nigerian College of Optometrists. This experience gave me the opportunity to gain the expertise needed to contribute towards providing contact lens care to a community in need. My research dissertation highlighted the poor awareness of contact lens use for refractive error correction in the general population and the high prevalence of anterior eye diseases, such as dry eye, in Nigeria.
My third goal was to become an educator who trains other healthcare professionals. This goal was driven by my experience in providing optometric care, my understanding of public eye health gaps, and my training in cornea and contact lens specialty area. In achieving this, I became a university lecturer, with a focus on acting as a role model in training other young female scientists. With these experiences in hand, I desired further structured training to answer scientific questions and to reach my fourth goal of becoming an independent eye and vision scientist. I was always curious when growing up. Rather than accepting a problem, I always wanted to know ‘what’ or ‘who’ caused the problem, ‘why’ it happened, ‘how’ to fix it, and ‘what’ the outcome would be. Soon enough, this curiosity and problem-solving approach propelled me through stages of higher education into a doctoral student status. I applied for and was accepted into the doctoral training program in the eye and vision field at the University of New South Wales, Australia, which I completed in September 2022.
What are some things in your field that you love or enjoy?
I enjoy being a voice in STEM for young people and for women. I also have a deep passion for service to the community and in my field and I have put my hand up to serve in various capacities. I am one of the inaugural Women in STEM champions at UNSW Sydney. I volunteer in this role to conduct STEM workshops in public schools in urban and regional NSW, Australia, encouraging young minds into science careers. I am a STEM ambassador to the Australian Academy of Technology through my involvement in Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), advocating career options for high school students by sharing lived experiences. The many roles I’ve taken on, and the various achievements are evidence that I love my field and I am proud of my ability to work collaboratively and productively within a team of diverse professionals.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
There have been several achievements that I treasure and so it’s difficult to choose one. But if I must, I would say mentoring and being mentored have been powerful tools to great accomplishments for me. Being a mentor to my students and to my peers has been rewarding. Whilst I have only recently completed my PhD, I have had experience supervising research projects. During my PhD I co-supervised three graduate research student projects. These are similar to short honors projects and are either clinically or laboratory-based projects by final year optometry students. My student teams have been awarded higher distinctions and ARVO conference student travel award. I maintain the position of a Faculty of Medicine and Health examiner at UNSW, Sydney, since 2020 and I have examined 58 Honours and Independent Learning research projects for Year 4 medical students. I was also involved in UNSW higher degree research peer mentoring and am a member of the Post-graduate Council Career Development Leadership Committee. I trained eight intern optometrists in private and public clinical settings in Nigeria, two of whom currently own their private clinics, two work as optometrists in the Nigerian military, and four in federal government hospitals.
Who is your greatest influence and why?
Career wise, the person of greatest influence in my career journey is the late Dr. Ayodeji Ayo-Bello, a renowned Nigerian-trained ophthalmologist who owned a 46-bed space private eye care specialist hospital in north central Nigeria. His hospital was top notch in the whole region and provided one of the best quality evidence-based eye care in Nigeria during his lifetime. Dr. Ayo-Bello gave me a rare opportunity to train in his hospital during my internship as an optometry graduate. He was a meticulous clinician and teacher; he gave me unlimited access to his clinic consulting room when he saw patients and engaged me with thought provoking clinical questions that propelled me to read wider and improve my knowledge of clinical ophthalmology and vision science. Dr. Ayo-Bello was an epitome of excellence in ophthalmology, and he trained me to become a very confident clinician and instilled in me the research mindset of understanding the why, how, and what of clinical conditions. In his words, Dr. Ayo-Bello describes me as “a very intelligent woman, hardworking, and enduring,” and he trusted me with his patients. Not only did Dr. Ayo-Bello prioritise training me as a clinician, but he also demonstrated amazing support for me when I had my first child. He provided me with a special room in his hospital and allowed me to bring my child and nanny to work during the initial months post-maternity leave to allow me time to work out the best childcare centre for my little girl. The experience and motivation I gained working with him birthed the push in me to take further steps into post graduate studies to gain the skills required to become a clinician par excellence, as he was, and to better position myself for my goal for academia and research; and that is what I am today.
Were there any challenges you faced pursuing your education and career while being a mother?
My first year of PhD was the most difficult year of my life. As a university lecturer at a renowned university in my home country, I was bewildered and disappointed when I did not obtain scholarship funding for which I had completed paperwork prior to traveling overseas to commence my PhD program. I was fortunate to have an incredibly supportive family and with their support I was able to pay tuition and living expenses for the first year. However, I was faced with the decision to quit after the initial year if I’m unable to obtain any scholarship to continue my program. It was a very distressing time, but I persevered. In order to be eligible to obtain a scholarship at UNSW Sydney, I worked so hard and published my first PhD paper, a systematic review and meta-analysis in the Ocular surface journal; and with the support of my PhD supervisors Associate Professor Blanka Golebiowski and Professor Isabelle Jalbert, I was able to obtain a UNSW Sydney Tuition Fee Scholarship. In addition to the struggle of continuing with my PhD, I was also the sole carer for my two young daughters in a new country without any immediate family support. It was very challenging, but I count myself lucky with the local church community support I had; through the church, we were blessed with a family in a foreign land.
I was resolute to survive no matter the circumstances. In the words of Dan O’Brien, “Consistency is the fruit of the tree of success. The more you do something effectively and with a goal in mind, the better you will get at it and the more you will feel fulfilled.” I persevered and remained consistent despite all odds.
In your opinion, what obstacles do women still face in this industry? Where do you see women in eye and vision sciences within the next five years?
Gender bias is a massive contributor to the issues women face in trying to secure or grow a career in STEM. However, there has been increasing conversation around gender equity, diverse and inclusive network of STEM professionals at all levels of academia, industry, education, business and government in recent times. Several bodies have risen advocating for women. For example, ARVO's Women’s Leadership Development Program, an initiative that facilitates the formation of a community and provides a non-bias network with peers with similar interests, as well as matches individuals to mentors with similar interest.
Through such programs, I see women in eye and vision sciences being equipped and positioned to occupy a more visible leadership space. Published evidence shows that women are by far less likely to receive research grants compared to their male counterparts. Thus, having women in key leadership positions would increase the voice of women and their involvement in decision making such as for research funding allocation. I see greater opportunities for women in eye and vision research to overcome the gender differences in research funding success rates within the next five years.