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Glaucoma specialist recognised as female STEM leader

Melbourne glaucoma researcher Dr Jennifer Fan Gaskin is one of 60 women selected for Science & Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM program, which aims to challenge gender assumptions about scientists and increase female visibility in their relevant field.

Fan Gaskin, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) and glaucoma specialist at The Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, wants to use her newfound status to encourage women and girls to aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and raise awareness about the importance of glaucoma research.

Superstars of STEM was established in 2017 to create a critical mass of celebrity Australian women who work as scientists and technologists and contribute towards equal representation in the media of women and men working in all STEM fields.

Over five years it will equip 150 women in STEM with advanced communication skills and provide them with opportunities to use these skills – in the media, on the stage and in speaking with decision makers.

Fan Gaskin almost dismissed a career in ophthalmology during her medical studies in Auckland in the early 2000s. This was due to a prevailing view among her peers that it was “almost impossible” to enter the highly competitive field.

“Then I was in clinic one day when a man was told he would never see again. The look on his and his wife’s face was of absolute devastation,” she recalled.

“It made me realise how important my sight was and just how awful it would be if I was told I would never see again. It made me determined to do everything in my power to stop other people from having to go through that experience.’’

More than a decade later, Fan Gaskin leads ocular fibrosis research at CERA to investigate safe and effective ways to prevent scarring and vision loss after glaucoma surgery.

She is an active member of RANZCO in roles encouraging professional development and the advancement of women, and advocates for the needs of patients on Glaucoma Australia’s ophthalmology committee. She is also a board member of the Australia and New Zealand Glaucoma Society.

Overcoming obstacles  

Over the next two years, Fan Gaskin’s Superstars of STEM cohort will be supported to develop skills and confidence to step into expert commentary roles in the media.

“Together we can share our experiences to help young women overcome the obstacles that many of us experienced earlier in our careers,” she said.

Fan Gaskin also hopes her involvement will raise awareness of the importance of glaucoma research.

“Blindness from glaucoma can be prevented but it has taken the sight of more Australians than any other disease,’’ she said

“About 50% of people with glaucoma do not know they have it because in the early stages the disease has no symptoms – so we need to do more to improve detection and treatment. My research aims to find new treatments that can prevent blindness and maintain a patient’s quality of life.

“And in the future, we hope that new treatments such as gene and cell therapies may be able to cure the disease altogether and restore sight.’’

More reading

‘Optometrist’ most searched STEM job in Australia

Study shows gene therapy potential to regenerate optic nerve, Aussie professor says

Quinlivan grant goes beyond ‘how and why’ of glaucoma research

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