Every year, fourth-year students award the Golden Apple award to the faculty member who has influenced them the most over the course of their four years at ICO. This year, Dr. Bhakhri received this award. Dr. Bhakhri's influence as a professor extends to other class years as well. He also was selected as Teacher of the Year by the second- and third-year classes. Being such a popular teacher, we wanted to learn a little bit more about what values he brings to his teaching and a bit about his journey to ICO.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into optometry?
I got into optometry because of a few friends of mine. Back in Canada, they introduced me to the profession. I wanted to learn more, so I started shadowing my own optometrist. He was always so happy at work, so I asked him, “You’re always smiling. I’ve never seen you upset. Why?” His response: “Because I love my job.” I was sold. From there I applied to optometry school. All my friends and I were accepted into PCO/Salus. So, that’s where we went.
What drew you to ICO?
As a student, I was interested in low vision. I did a rotation at PCO/Salus in the low vision and disease unit, and I loved it, but I knew I needed to learn more. I was looking for a similar clinical experience but also wanted to learn outside the familiar PCO/Salus environment.
Faculty members at PCO/Salus spoke highly of ICO, so I applied for an ICO residency. The ICO Low Vision/Ocular Disease residency was exactly what I was looking for. The program strengthened my knowledge and skills while also introducing me to the teaching aspects of optometry. None of that was possible without help, though. The mentorship I received from the faculty during that residency year is something I will always appreciate. I wouldn’t be teaching if it wasn’t for them. I still lean on those mentors today for support and guidance.
I enjoyed my time at ICO so much. I wanted to stay on as faculty, but at that time there weren’t any open positions. It took me doing a residency at ICO to realize teaching had to be part of who I am as an optometrist.
Luckily, a position opened at the Southern California College of Optometry. It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. The seven years I spent teaching there were amazing. There too, I was lucky to have great friends and mentors who helped me become a better teacher and optometrist. Yet, in the back of my mind, there was always a thought of coming back to ICO. A position opened, and I’ve been here now for three years. I’ve loved every moment of it.
You recently received two Teacher of the Year awards and the Golden Apple award. What values do you try to bring to your teaching?
Understanding and compassion. Every student learns differently. You can’t have the same approach with everyone. I try to adjust and adapt to make concepts simpler and more straightforward for our students. I think every professor can attest to this moment when lecturing: you look up from your notes, and just by looking around, you can tell, “Yep, you understand exactly what I’m saying,” or, “You have no clue what I just said.” When I get those blank faces, that just motivates me to get back to the drawing board to see how I can rework and rewrite the content.
I also try to be relatable. I want them to always keep asking questions and I try to be as available as possible whether that’s through email, informally in the hallway, or, of course, in class.
How do you see optometry changing in the next few years and how do you hope to be a part of it?
Optometry is shifting towards a disease-based model. Ophthalmologists are overwhelmed with the number of patients and diseases they manage. Optometrists are prepared to handle many of the cases ophthalmologists see. The question is do we handle them? More and more the answer is yes. Especially at ICO, students are exposed to many different diseases and their management. I find it exciting not only that we are now managing all these conditions, but also just how well prepared our students are to take care of them. At ICO, there is a challenging workload, but it’s for a reason. Our students need to know more because they will be treating and managing more complex cases every single year.
I get to be part of these developments every day by being a teacher at ICO. It’s inspiring to see how the classes my colleagues and I teach are preparing students for the future.
In the end, ICO students are the future of this profession. We have to prepare them as well as possible. That's what it always comes back to for me. The other faculty members and I work hard for them because we know they will ultimately change our profession. The better prepared they are, the better off optometry is.
What’s one thing you would like incoming students to know about the field of optometry?
Optometry isn’t just contacts and glasses. There are so many optometric specialties that students can choose from. Mine originally was low vision. At that time, I was often treating patients where glasses and contacts were no longer enough. For them, vision had to be maximized with magnifiers and other technologies. I loved having that as my foundational work as a recent graduate, but I was also able to shift from low vision to ocular pharmacology because it was something I was interested in. It’s amazing just how many different places your optometry degree can take you. Look at my own journey. My residency is in low vision, but when the opportunity came to teach ocular pharmacology, I said yes right away. That’s the beauty of our profession — you get to choose what you’re passionate about. You get to build your own journey.