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A Short Conversation with Dr. Melissa E. Trego, ASCO President
During ASCO’s Board meeting in June, ASCO swears in a new President for the upcoming 12 months. This year, Dr. Melissa E. Trego was sworn in as ASCO’s President.
Dr. Trego brings nearly two decades of optometric clinical expertise and academic leadership to the position of Dean of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University. She proudly serves as the first female graduate of PCO to hold this title. After earning her Doctor of Optometry from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, she pursued a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology at Cardiff University, Wales, United Kingdom. While at Cardiff, Dr. Trego worked on the role of alpha-crystallins in retinal degeneration. She returned to the US and completed a residency in primary care/ocular disease at The Eye Institute at PCO. Dr. Trego has been a faculty member in PCO since 2006 and holds the rank of Associate Professor. She has served as the Associate Dean of Optometric Academic Affairs, Associate Dean of the Accelerated Scholars Program, and interim Dean, prior to becoming the Dean of PCO. Dr. Trego was instrumental in the development of the College’s Accelerated Scholars Program, the first three-year Doctor of Optometry program in the U.S, not requiring a MD or PhD for admission.
In addition to her work at PCO/Salus and TEI, Dr. Trego has held an array of leadership positions at the national level; she served as ASCO’s Chief Academic Officer for PCO as well as an accreditation team member for the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education. She has published various peer-reviewed abstracts and presents professionally both nationally and internationally. Throughout her career, she has won various awards including Alcon’s Clinical Excellence Award, Clinical Excellence in Low Vision, National Optometric Student Association Faculty Recognition Award, Outstanding Optometry Professor of the Year, and Salus University’s Onofrey Rybachok’s Educator of the Year Award.
Dr. Trego sat down with ASCO’s Director of Communications, Kimberly O’Sullivan to discuss the upcoming year.
ASCO: Dr. Trego, congratulations on becoming ASCO President. It seems like the pandemic grip is loosening a bit and we are getting back to normal. Whatever that means. How have things been for you these past several months?
Dr. Melissa Trego: I would say these past several months have been pretty challenging on all fronts. Just when we think we have hit a good stride, there’s another obstacle. It has been a hectic and humbling time for all of us. You think you’re ahead in the game and then realize there’s another curve ball thrown your way. But that’s ok – we’ve got this!
ASCO: I loved learning that you are the first female Dean of PCO who was also a student at PCO. How does that feel?
MT: I grew up at PCO as a student. I was able to complete a residency and then became a faculty member of PCO, so I have been a part of the PCO family for years. A lot of the faculty members I work with daily are the same faculty that taught me as an optometry student. My goal has been the same no matter what my role – to support the students and faculty as best I can. I didn’t think I would necessarily take this path into leadership, but I am so appreciative of the mentorship and the ability to serve this role. I am very thankful for the opportunity.
ASCO: Thank you. Now let’s talk about ASCO. What are you looking forward to most as President of ASCO? What will be some of your top priorities this year?
MT: What I have learned and appreciated most about ASCO, especially these past few years, is the camaraderie I have formed with the other Deans and Presidents of the other schools and colleges. The other members of the Executive Committee are really remarkable individuals, great colleagues, and, more importantly, good friends.
I look forward to open debates, dialogue, and decision making to continue improving optometric education. I appreciate being a part of the voice that helps accomplish this.
We just completed another Strategic Planning process and the recruitment of a quality and diverse applicant pool remains our biggest priority. Another priority of mine is to also focus on the overall wellbeing of faculty and students at the schools and colleges. Considering where we are as a society right now and what we are balancing, we need to continue to focus on everyone’s wellbeing.
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 Salus/PCO? What did you find most appealing about the field of optometry?
MT: I discovered optometry primarily through my grandfather. My grandparents primarily raised me for many years and as they got older, I would take them to their doctor’s appointments. My grandfather was diabetic and had diabetic retinopathy and all he wanted to do was to be able to read his Bible. His ophthalmologist was honest with him and told him he was losing his vision and there was very little to be done. Around that time, I went to see my optometrist (John Ciummei, OD & PCO grad) and I brought my grandfather along. Dr. Ciummei worked with my grandfather and gave him a handheld device that allowed him to read his Bible. I could see his enjoyment and I thought that is what I wanted to do, improve someone’s quality of life. For my grandfather it was reading his Bible. For others it could be catching a ball or being able to read music. My optometrist inspired me. That’s all it took. That is what I wanted to do. I started to talk to him about the profession and found out that he went to PCO so that is where I wanted to go. Becoming an optometrist is still the best decision I’ve ever made (thus far).
My path to Dean was that I was potentially in the right place at the right time. I knew in optometry school I didn’t want to get into private practice but loved the idea of education. Still, sixteen years later, my favorite part is still seeing patients. I see patients (or work with our on campus residents) one day a week. I still believe that optometric education is one of the greatest ways to influence the profession and future patients.
ASCO: Tell me more about Salus/PCO.
MT: PCO has been around for more than 100 years and prides itself most on being the type of optometry program that gets students ready for just about anything that walks through their clinic door. We are not afraid to push the envelope and I love it. The visual I like to use with regards to PCO is seeing birds on a wire. You most likely notice the bird that isn’t perfectly aligned with the other birds, kind of like PCO. We are not afraid to be different and think outside of the box. We don’t spend a lot of time asking why – instead, we approach it as ‘why not?’
Not only does PCO have an impressive history in optometric education, but our faculty are also dedicated, passionate, and innovative thinkers. PCO also prides ourselves on our diverse student body. We are incredibly diverse, and we love it.
PCO is the largest, and founding college within Salus University. Salus is Latin for health and well-being and the University offers professional and graduate and certificate programs in a number of health science professions.
ASCO: Thank you. Speaking of Philadelphia, I MUST ask this. How many times have you run up the “Rocky steps”?
MT: If I ran up the Rocky steps, it would have been years ago. I have obviously been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I’m more than happy to watch other people run the steps, record it and post on TikTok!
ASCO: What about a Philly cheese steak? I know this question can be controversial. Lol. Care to comment on your favorite place to get one?
MT: I was just asked this question at the AOA in Chicago. Tourism hype will say it’s Pat’s versus Gino’s. I, however, think Papa Nick’s is my choice. It is just a couple blocks from the Eye Institute. If you’re into “the [Cheese] Whiz and onions” I would go to either Pat’s or Gino’s. But I still like Papa Nick’s for a local place.
ASCO: We like to ask everyone we speak with to say something about the field of optometry that people may not know. Or what would you say to someone with the aptitude for optometry but may not know about the field.
MT: I think the best thing I can say about optometry is there are multiple opportunities. It is almost like an exciting game of “choose your own adventure.” There are multiple directions you can go based on your interests. You can become an entrepreneur and own one or multiple businesses. You could work in a Veteran’s Affairs hospital and care for those who served our country. You can become a consultant and work in industry and promote an eye drop or other optometric and medical equipment or you can focus on an area of emphasis (dry eye, contact lenses, neuro rehabilitation) in an OD or OD/MD practice. Obviously, you cannot forget about the multiple opportunities in academia. That (academic), to me, is the very best adventure.
Optometry can also provide you with flexibility – to balance your professional and personal interests.
Let’s face it – as an optometrist, you become responsible for protecting the one sense that people fear losing the most. How powerful is that? Talk about influencing people’s lives every day!
ASCO: Please tell us a little about your life outside of the workplace. What do you like to do outside of work?
MT: Where do I start? Most recently I have picked up tennis again. I typically will play 3-4 times a week and have found that I love the mental and physical aspect of the sport. The social aspect has also been a great escape from all things optometry. I also don’t want to brag too much, but I am pretty sure I may be the best Bingo caller along the eastern seaboard. While I joke, you would be surprised at how much a group of people can actually get into a solid game of B-I-N-G-O!
And, believe it or not, I am always up for taking up different classes and learning something new and different. I have taken glass blowing, acrylic painting, water colors, and even a cake decorating class. I love to put myself in situations where I don’t know what I’m doing. It keeps me humble and grounded. It also makes me a better educator and helps me to practice mindfulness… I mean, how can you not focus in the moment when you are handling melted liquid glass (2500°F)?
And of course, I also have my dog, Zara, she keeps me on my toes and is a great listener.
Thank you for your time Dr. Trego! We look forward to having a very productive and hopefully pandemic-free year!
Editors note: Thank you Dr. Schaffner for your service!
by Lieutenant Matt Schaffner, OD
UAB School of Optometry Class of 2019
Why I became a military optometrist
My desire to serve my country in the Armed Forces is what actually led me to pursue a career in optometry. I come from a long line of family members who have served our country in every armed conflict that the United States has been a part of. I have a great-great-great… (I do not know how many “greats”) grandfather, Major William Gill, who served as the aid to General George Washington in the American Revolution. More recently, both of my grandfathers served, one of which served in the Pacific theater in WWII, and my father and his brothers all served in the Navy. My father, who made rank of Commander in the U.S Navy Dental Corps, is my biggest role model for wanting to serve in the military in a health care capacity.
When exploring health care fields within the Navy, I came across optometry as a Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) career. HPSP is a scholarship in which the Navy provides full coverage of medical, dental, or optometry school costs and allows for direct accession in the Navy as a commissioned officer. As I read about a career in Navy optometry, the opportunity to serve our nation’s heroes in a mission-critical role was too good to pass up.
Optometry school experiences prepared me for this career
The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry absolutely prepared me for taking on the challenges of meeting ocular and vision care needs of our nation’s servicemen and servicewomen. The diversity of our patients at UABSO provided me the opportunity to clinically diagnose and treat patients from a large variety of cultures, backgrounds, and predisposed medical conditions. The Navy and all U.S. Armed Forces are composed of very diversified groups of people from different nations, backgrounds, and cultures, much like my experience at UABSO. My well-rounded experience at UABSO as a student equipped me with the tools and confidence to be able to provide quality ocular health care for our diverse military population.
Also, during my fourth year in-school rotations, I was able to sneak into two rounds of TBEye Clinic in my last year of optometry school. In TBEye Clinic we provided comprehensive and specialty eye exams to UAB athletes, students, and members of the community who have experienced traumatic brain injuries. We examined every facet of ocular health and vision, which included ocular pathology, vision loss, and binocular vision deficits post-concussion. One of the biggest learning takeaways from TBEye clinic was that we could help facilitate neurological healing for our TBEye patients by simply addressing undercorrected refractive errors, binocular vision anomalies, and impaired proprioception. These skills became especially handy when treating servicemen and servicewomen who have undergone head injuries secondary to high risk activities by the very nature of their military jobs.
A day in my life
A routine day at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Optometry Clinic consists of providing comprehensive eye exams and vision physicals typically for Marine pilots and aircrew, ensuring that they maintain vision and ocular requirements for safe aeronautical operations. We also conduct Student Naval Aviator eye exams for Pilot and Naval Flight Officer applicants.
Not only are we taking care of Marines involved in aviation and aviation support, but we also see patients from all other branches of the military including Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.
At Naval Medical Center San Diego and the surrounding branch clinics, we have multiple externs rotating through optometry clinics at any given time. I am afforded the opportunity to teach fourth year optometry students from several different optometry schools as adjunct faculty. Students often find their Navy rotation very enjoyable as they get to practice proficiency on active duty military patients from all over the country and even the world.
Being a Naval Officer often requires time away from the clinic to fulfill other leadership roles and training. Training can be as mundane as hours of PowerPoints to as exciting as learning how to escape from an underwater helicopter crash upside-down in the dark via pool simulation!
As an optometrist in the Navy, providing vision and ocular care is mission critical for the many occupations like pilots operating aircraft, submariners navigating subsurface, and special operators and Marines maneuvering in nighttime operations. I am so grateful and honored to have the opportunity to serve America’s heroes every day.