Meet Dr. John Flanagan, ASCO President

June 26, 2020

A Short Conversation with Dr. John Flanagan, ASCO President

During ASCO’s Board meeting in June, ASCO swears in a new President for the upcoming 12 months. This year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Board meeting was held remotely, and Dr. John Flanagan was sworn in as ASCO’s President virtually.

Dr. Flanagan is the Dean and Professor at School of Optometry and Vision Science Program, University of California, Berkeley. He graduated in Optometry and Vision Sciences from Aston University, Birmingham, UK in 1980, where he later earned his PhD in 1985. From 1985 to 2014 he was Professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science, University of Waterloo and for the latter 25 years was seconded 75% to the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences, University of Toronto, Canada, where he was a Professor and Director of the Glaucoma Research Unit, Toronto Western Research Institute and a Senior Scientist at the Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network.

He has held continuous federal research funding for 32 years (MRC/CIHR/CHRP/ORF/NEI-NIH), with additional research funding from the BrightFocus Foundation, the Glaucoma Research Society of Canada and the Glaucoma Research Foundation. He has supervised 45 graduate students and has authored more than 175 peer-reviewed publications. In addition, he has 14 book chapters, three books and given numerous invited lectures to both professional and academic audiences around the world. His research interests include basic mechanisms of human glaucoma (glial cell activation, neuroprotection), ocular imaging, clinical psychophysics, ocular blood flow and studies of vascular reactivity. Awards include Certificate of Merit for Research Excellence, Glaucoma Research Society of Canada; Claire Bobier Lecture, University of Waterloo; Springer Lecture, University of Alabama; the Glenn A Fry Award from the American Academy of Optometry; Outstanding Performance Award, University of Waterloo (2004 & 2013); Institute of Medical Science Mel Silverman Mentorship Award, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, 2011; the Dario Lorenzetti Lecture, McGill Ophthalmology, 2013; and the Karen Walker-Brandreth Lecture, UC Berkeley, 2015. He was a plenary lecturer at the 2003 AAO meeting, and was appointed as faculty for the inaugural World Glaucoma Congress in 2005 and at each subsequent WGC meeting. He was a founding member of the Optometric Glaucoma Society; Program Chair from 2002 to 2007, and President from 2007 to 2012. He is also a member of the American Glaucoma Society, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology and American Academy of Optometry. Professional organizations include the American Optometric Association, California Optometric Association, Ontario College of Optometrists, and British College of Optometry. From 2008-2014 he was Chair of the Clinical Research Ethics Committee at the University of Waterloo. He has also served as a Governor and Senator at the University of Waterloo, and was a member of the Senate Executive Committee. He is currently President of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry, having previously served as Secretary and Treasurer. In 2015 he was awarded a life fellowship of the British College of Optometrists. In 2016 he received a DSc honoris causa from alma mater Aston University, and fellowship of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology. In 2020, he received the President’s Award for services to the profession of optometry, by the American Optometric Association.

Titles:  J.G. Flanagan BSchons, PhD, DSchc, FCOptom, FAAO, FARVO


Dr. Flanagan chatted with ASCO’s Director of Communications, Kimberly O’Sullivan to talk about the upcoming year.

ASCO: Dr. Flanagan, congratulations on being named ASCO President for fiscal year 2020-2021. Before we get into that, how are you doing during these challenging times? How are you adapting to the “new normal”? What was graduation like and how are you preparing for the upcoming academic year?

Dr. John Flanagan: Thank you for asking. It has indeed been a challenging time, I’m not sure I’ve ever worked harder than in the last 4 months, yet it has not been without rewards. I’ve come to dislike the idea of this being a “new normal.” I certainly hope not, but I do think that there will be significant change to the way we live and the way we practice. As an optimist I believe many of these changes will be for the good of the profession. I’m excited by the acceptance of telehealth, finally. I believe this is good for our patients and good for optometry. I think that we were overdue for a reminder of the importance of good infection control practices. We have all worried about adenovirus, and in other parts of the world how Creutzfeldt-Jacobs disease has influenced practice protocols, but after SARS-CoV-2 I believe we will all take viruses that cause colds and flu, more seriously. Why should we be so relaxed about exposing our elderly or immune-compromised patients to other viruses? I believe that many of us will continue to wear scrubs in everyday primary care practice, have a much lower tolerance to wearing face masks, and I think it appropriate to adopt a west coast namaste rather than a hand shake.

Graduation was probably one of the most emotional, socially distanced events of the lock down. When a class is ready to graduate, there is a wonderful dynamic between the graduates and the faculty and staff. The graduates are eager to begin the next step in their careers, but there is a bond that is genuinely emotional. Graduation is a celebration for family, friends and classmates, but for many faculty and staff it is also a cathartic separation. This year we had an informal Zoom toast, but promised that as soon as possible we will arrange the best of commencement celebrations. This is after all, the Class of 2020!

The upcoming academic year will be interesting, and is already taking a great deal of time, effort and planning. We are proposing a hybrid curriculum where all clinic, clinic labs and small group teaching in the OD and Vision Science programs are taught in person, but all didactic classes will remain remote but synchronous. Key to the planning is that no group of more than 26 can gather in a single room or place, and that, wherever possible they remain socially distanced. We are hopeful that our incoming first year students will be together enough to create a class identity, and start supporting each other from the start. This is essential to training and bonding, and ultimately professionalism. Second years will be together in clinical training, and third and fourth years will be in full clinical rotations, albeit with reduced patient capacity due to essential safety measures.

ASCO: What are you looking forward to most as President of ASCO? What will be some of your top priorities this year?

JF: As a Dean who comes from away, I have greatly appreciated the comradery and cohesiveness of ASCO. Colleagues were welcoming and helpful, and willing to educate me to the national culture of the profession. I knew many of the Deans and Presidents before moving to California, but by no means all. It has been a true pleasure getting to know everyone. We are a small group, and we enjoy the privilege of meeting as an all-inclusive board. This is unusual in such professional organizations.

I look forward to honoring the tradition established by my immediate predecessors Jenny Coyle, David Heath, Karla Zadnik, David Damari and Elizabeth Hoppe. They have provided inspired leadership. The staff, under the leadership of Dawn Mancuso, have equally enabled and organized, and shared their talents.

Our priorities are well defined moving forward; Optometry Gives Me Life/applicant pool and diversity. As part of the executive committee I worked hard to ensure these were ASCO’s priorities, and it is essential we remain focused and within the financial means of our relatively small association. We have an active Strategic Plan and a treasure trove of creative thinking from our recent Opening Our Eyes and Research summits. The Board knows of my concerns regarding diversity. As a profession we need to do better. With less than 3% black students nationally we have to do better. This will be a major focus of my presidency.

In addition, it is important to acknowledge the many activities of ASCO, from faculty and leadership development, SIGS and committees, academic advocacy, residency promotion, data development, and communications.

ASCO: Please tell me more about the priorities you mentioned above. How will you continue focusing on the applicant pool? Has the public awareness campaign, Optometry Gives Me Life, launched in March 2019, yielded any positive results yet or it is too soon?

JF: Optometry Gives Me Life has launched with great promise. We understood it to be a 4-year commitment. The numbers of engagement are startling, but at the end of year 1, and as expected, there is not yet clear evidence of impact. The large numbers engaging with the program augers well for future impact and increase in the applicant pool within 4 years.

Five years ago, the Board considered a proposal by Berkeley Optometry and the National Optometric Association to hire an Executive Director of Diversity Success. The Board were supportive and unanimously approved a motion to commission a consultant’s report. We are yet to fund the report. I still believe that this is an essential element towards helping each and every School and College improve their diversity and inclusion. The national statistics tell of a stark reality. Less than 3% of all optometry students and 4% of all faculty are Black, when there are 12.7% African-Americans nationally. These numbers have been static for at least the last 10 years. We must find creative ways to fund this position and an initial consultant’s report to inform ASCO as to the type of programs and type of search we need to help this critical, national effort. I will seek the advice of ASCO’s Diversity and Cultural Competency Committee as to how best to move forward, and once again look forward to collaborating with the National Optometric Association.

However, underlying all special projects and initiatives is a need for ASCO to play a role in national coordination, advocacy, policy and communication, alongside our partner organizations. During the onset of the pandemic the ASCO board met informally on a weekly basis. It became a welcome sanity check and invaluable exchange of experiences and ideas as we each worked through the problems of remote education, lock down, PPE, urgent and emergent care, mental health, ACOE requirements, COPE regulations, National Boards, graduation, state licensure and clinic reopening protocols. Never has it been more obvious that ASCO needs to be a strong national voice for education, research, students, faculty, and residents.

ASCO:  Let’s get to know you on a personal level better. Why did you choose the career of optometry? What did your path entail getting you to the Dean of Berkeley School of Optometry? What did you find most appealing about the field of optometry?

JF: I started wearing glasses as a 6-year-old myope. I never particularly enjoyed wearing my glasses at school, but I always enjoyed seeing my optometrist. The colored lights, the letters, the questions, feeling part of the examination, were all part of a positive experience. In high school I always thought I would be a vet, but a severe cat allergy developed in my late teens and quickly put a stop to that. I took a gap year and worked in theater and as a truck driver. I ended up with a choice between performing arts, medicine and optometry, and decided that optometry would be the perfect qualification for a starving actor. I started optometry school at a particularly magical time at Aston University. They had an amazing faculty who fostered a new attitude towards research for that time in the UK profession. I simply never looked back. I also co-founded a Revue company based within a community arts center in the grounds of the campus. We performed locally and each summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, so I was happy to accept a scholarship from the Royal National Institute for the Blind to study for a PhD back at Aston. However, the research won out and overpowered my thespian urges. At the end of my PhD there were no academic jobs in Thatcher’s Britain, but Canada was recruiting. I married the love of my life, Kathy Dumbleton, who had just finished her residency in contact lenses at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, and we both accepted jobs at the University of Waterloo.

My research led me to an interest in glaucoma and neurodegenerative disease. This quickly started a collaboration with Professor Graham Trope, an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist at the University of Toronto. This eventually led to a unique opportunity that resulted in me being seconded (75%) to Toronto for 25 years, and I thank both Graham and Professor Jake Sivak for making this possible, their support and respective leadership in Ophthalmology and Optometry, were always inspiring. I never thought I would leave this wonderful post, but in 2014 Berkeley Optometry came calling and I have never regretted the new and unanticipated opportunity of leadership and administration. I have recently accepted a second 5-year term as Dean, and look forward to celebrating Berkeley Optometry’s centennial in 2023!

ASCO: Tell me more about Berkeley and the Schools of Optometry. Berkeley has a storied reputation.

JF:  UC Berkeley is an amazing university, with a beautiful campus and an outstanding School of Optometry. The depth and range of daily academic pursuit can leave you breathless. Every year I speak to the first-year class at orientation and ask them to make sure they take full advantage of the institution and all it offers, whether their interests are in the arts, politics, public health or sports, there are daily events featuring some of the world’s most accomplished and talented people.

I also want the profession of Optometry to understand just how outstanding some of our Schools and Colleges are, both clinically and from a research perspective. Berkeley Optometry has one of the biggest clinical operations in the country, which includes a pioneering telehealth screening service for diabetic retinopathy and a digital health clinic serving over 40,000 patients a year, the country’s first academic myopia control clinic, a sports vision clinic integrated within the intercollegiate sports teams, a pioneering neurorehabilitation and TBI clinic, along with our many other specialty and primary care services. Our Vision Science program is amongst the biggest and most successful research groups dedicated to eye and vision. Our 42-year-old NEI-NIH doctoral student training grant is the largest in the country, and as large as the rest of the top 10 combined, we have more NIH funding than all of US Optometry combined. This is something we should all be proud of, not just Berkeley, and I can still boast on their behalf having only arrived six years ago!

However, what I am most excited about for our future is our faculty renewal over the last 5 years, both clinical and senate. We have recruited 4 brilliant young assistant professors, 2 of whom are PhD optometrists, a further 2 outstanding OD, PhD clinician scientists, and 10 new clinical assistant professors. Our future looks bright!

ASCO: We like to ask everyone we speak with to say something about the field of optometry that people may not know.

JF:  There are two areas of interest I would like to highlight, neither of which are particularly unknown but both of which I believe are underestimated and underserved. The first is glaucoma, for which some in our profession have developed exceptional skills and expertise. Many of us treat glaucoma, and work well in partnership with ophthalmologists who are glaucoma specialists, but others are committed at a higher level. Every year, my meeting highlight is sitting with around 100 members of the Optometric Glaucoma Society discussing and debating the latest in glaucoma research and management. Amongst that group are ODs who are pioneers in all aspects of the disease with the exception of incisional surgery. They are educators, researchers, but most of all clinicians, dedicated to the care of patients with glaucoma, both simple and complex. They inspire and humble me. I will always be grateful to my friend Murray Fingeret for proposing the idea, and along with Michael Patella and Tom Lewis, it has been a privilege to form the OGS and watch it grow. However, I believe that more optometrists need the opportunity and encouragement to practice to the full scope of their training, including the management of glaucoma.

The second area is a more recent passion, uncorrected refractive error. In partnership with Kovin Naidoo and Hasan Minto, Berkeley Optometry is in the process of establishing the Berkeley Vision CURE (Children’s Uncorrected Refractive Error) initiative, a service and research organization with the simple but ambitious goal of ensuring that every child has access to eye care and vision correction by the year 2050. There are approximately 2.7 billion people living with uncorrected refractive error (URE), making URE the world’s most widespread unaddressed disability (World Report on Vision. WHO, 2019), and children are carrying much of this burden. Of the 2.7 billion people with URE, approximately 1 billion are aged 18 years or younger. By the year 2050 there will be more than 1.3 billion children with myopia alone. Of the 1 billion children with URE, over 90% will live in countries with developing economies. Along with colleagues Sarah Kochik, Ian Bailey, Luigi Bilotto and others, it is time to organize and serve.

ASCO: Please tell us a little about your life outside of the workplace. What do you like to do outside of work?

JF: Kathy and I love to hike, and there are few places better than the Bay Area for access to stunning parks, mountains and seascapes. I’m never happier than being out on a trail and seeing the wildlife and beauty around me, whether it be whales, elephants or a soaring eagle. I’m passionate about football, the soccer variety, and have always had an interest in music. The Greek has become our favorite live music venue and I still love to play when I can. I had a great run with the Lost Faculties, 14 years of friendship, madness and mayhem, and some of the best fun a grown up could have. Looks like Orlando in 2019 will be our last and final gig, having played our first, “final” concert at the AAO’s Australia Party in Denver in 2014.

However, the most important thing in my life is family. Kathy and I have been married for 35 years and have been blessed with two wonderful daughters and a granddaughter. My daughters are both health care professionals and have been working in high stress environments throughout the pandemic. I am proud of their achievements and commitment, but relieved they have been safe so far. We were recently able to gather for a carefully coordinated, socially distanced, appropriately quarantined, bubble controlled and wonderfully intimate wedding. It was a beautiful afternoon filled with love and happiness, but please, not the “new normal”.

Thank you for your time Dr. Flanagan! We look forward to having a very productive and interesting year!