InFocus: Zoe Baker - Pre-Optometry
Pre-Professional Health Careers: When you were at Texas Tech, what was your pre-health designation, what was your major, and why did you choose them?
Zoe Baker: I kind of knew going into undergrad that I wanted to go into the medical field. I had always considered optometry as my first choice, but I also explored going to medical school. But I just wasn't sure so I thought I would just play it by ear, as I went on and took classes. I figured I could just decide down the road. I think I was a biology major first, or maybe that's what I thought I wanted, because there's a misconception that if you're pre-med you have to be a biology major, and that was something that was pretty popular amongst my group of friends that was also going pre-med. But my dad was actually a chemist so I kind of grew up in a chemistry lab, and it was I guess just in my blood. I was better at that than I was at any biology course – I just enjoyed it a lot more, so I switched to chem and didn't look back and I really enjoyed it.
PPHC: That's great. I'm glad to hear that. What was it like growing up with a chemist as a dad?
ZB: Oh my gosh. It was exactly as it sounds, I think. It was very fun, but also so nerdy. He definitely wanted me to be a chemistry major; he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. But it was great because I always had my questions answered and everything was always really fun, like an experiment.
PPHC: Why did you choose Texas Tech?
ZB: I'm actually originally from Amarillo. I really wanted to stay close, because that's where my family is still. I had a lot of great friends going to Texas Tech. I also felt like it was close enough to home to still be comfortable but a big enough place where I could really have a lot of good opportunities. They have a great business school, they have a med school, they have all these things. I felt like I could pursue any avenue I wanted to if I ever decided to change my mind.
PPHC: I don't know if you're aware of this, but here at Texas Tech, Pre-Optometry is probably one of our lowest populations among the pre-health groups. I was wondering if you had an inkling as to why that is – why so few students choose optometry and so many more seem to choose nursing or medicine or pharmacy?
ZB: I definitely did know that. I think it's not related to Tech; I think it's kind of a thing everywhere. I think it's just lack of knowledge of what optometry is and what it has to offer as a health profession. I was lucky enough to have an optometrist as a mentor growing up. I knew so much about it that I got this idea that other people just didn't – they had no idea. When I got to Tech, I didn't even have the inkling to search for a pre-optometry group. I didn't really think to search for people who might be into the same thing. I think maybe sometimes people associate “pre-med” as kind of a blanket statement over all of the health professions. Even my friends who were pre-dental or pre-pharmacy or pre-physical therapy – they all kind of blanketed themselves under pre-med. I think it's just really lack of knowledge about the Pre-Optometry [Professional] Society.
PPHC: I think you're probably right, and in the interest of that, why don't you tell us a little bit about optometry in your own words? What is optometry?
ZB: As optometrists, you know, there's different kinds of eye doctors, right? There's optometrists and then there's ophthalmologists, and optometrists go to optometry school, which is a four-year program after your undergrad, whereas ophthalmologists go to medical school after their undergrad and specialize in eye surgeries and stuff. My four years in optometry school are very specific to the visual system and all about the eyes, whereas an ophthalmologist goes to med school and is kind of a general, a medical doctor, and then specializes in the eye. We do a lot more than I think people think an optometrist is. We don't just prescribe glasses or give contact lenses. We really focus on the health of the entire visual system. The eye is so miraculous. It's the only place in the body where you can actually look in and see the vasculature – that just gives us an overall idea of the entire health of your whole body. You can detect diabetes early on in the eye. You can detect hypertension early on in the eye. And, you know, thyroid disease. All of these really common things that plague our society, we can directly see those things happening in your eye, and so we do a lot of that type of healthcare management, as well. It's really just a kind of broad, there's-something-new-every-day type of profession. It's also a profession that allows you to have a family and have a life outside of school and your profession. All the optometrists that I know and that I look up to have really enriched lives elsewhere. They're optometrists but they're also really involved in their communities, which I love and which is something that attracted me to it.
PPHC: Great! That is an awesome answer, by the way, Zoey. I'm really excited for our readers to get to see that and learn a little more about this profession. So you talked about how pre-optometry kind of allowed you to have a life outside of your studies. Tell us a little more about that – what were some of the important relationships you built while you were in college?
ZB: Well, first and foremost, I think Lubbock is really a great place to build relationships of any kind and in any community that you get involved in. The people of Lubbock are so kind and warm and anybody would take you in like their own so I love that about Lubbock. I was an SI leader while I was at Tech – I SI'd for chemistry classes and the community that I built with the other SI leaders and even the kids that came to my session – that was one of the most important things to me. I felt like I was getting something done as far as school goes, like I didn't feel guilty because I wasn't studying. All of those relationships were so important to me and they still are; I still keep in touch with a lot of those people now. Also, one of my favorite relationships was my mentor at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. I worked for an internal medicine doctor and one of the postdocs in the lab kind of took me under his wing and helped me understand as a postdoc and as a researcher the importance of research and the importance of staying on course and not giving up when things get hard. I think a lot of times as an undergrad at Tech, nobody really talks about all of the hard stuff that you have to do in order to get into a really competitive program. The application process, all the research hours, all the volunteer hours. That's really hard; it's hard to do all those things and maintain your grades and, I don't know, get adequate sleep, too.
ZB: So having that community and someone being there and telling me, “You can be successful. Just stay on course. Don't give up,” and having proof of that was just so important to me at Tech.
PPHC: Let me ask you about organizations on campus. Do you remember any specific organizations here at Texas Tech that you would recommend other pre-optometry students get involved in?
ZB: Yeah, absolutely! So first and foremost, my senior year I was the president of an organization on campus called Texas Tech Medical Brigade. That was a medical organization, so a lot of kids that were pre-med were in that organization, and I joined for the service and volunteer part of it. They get together as a group of students, they raise money all year and medical supplies, and then we take a trip every year to an underserved community. So when I was there we went to Panama, and we had also planned to go to Nicaragua. But it wasn't just students. We worked with health professionals of all kinds, from our community and from the communities we were visiting. We did several things, not just basic medical care. We provided a lot of dental care – you know, we raised so many dental supplies and we raised a lot of glasses, too – reading glasses and other things people might need to improve their vision. I was able to kind of see optometry in the field in an underserved community. I don't think I could've gotten that opportunity anywhere else at Tech, so that was a really great organization for me to be a part of. It was also a great chance for me to see other professions all together and how they worked together, and gave me a chance to experience other things to see if those were things I'd like to pursue, but it just further confirmed that I did want to go into optometry. And at Tech, there's the Pre-Optometry [Professional] Society, so search out those specific organizations so that you can network and utilize resources that you don't know about, yet.
PPHC: Now, a little bit about you. What are your personal goals, Zoey?
ZB: It changes by the day, honestly. There are so many avenues to pursue, but I told you I was an SI leader at Tech and I really love teaching and I love academia, I love the whole atmosphere of it, so I think as of right now, when I finish (I have two years left in my program), I think I might try to get a clinical position at another optometry school and be able to teach. That would be my main goal. Anything I can do in this profession to provide awesome patient care would be the best thing.
PPHC: I just have one more question. Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your experiences as a pre-optometry student or as a current optometry student?
ZB: I think one of the things that I wish I would've known before applying to optometry school or while deciding to go to optometry school is don't take yourself too seriously. Your grades definitely matter but there's a lot of other things that matter, too, you know? Don't waste all of your time so worried about your grade point average and your volunteer hours and what you can do to be a great candidate because, you know, there's so many things to explore. Go out and explore other career options. Shadow as much as you can. Talk to as many people as you can and figure out what you wanna do. When I went to optometry school, you know, it's been my life. These last two years have been absolutely nothing but optometry, and luckily I love it. But I've definitely seen a lot of people who go into a medical program, a graduate program, and they just don't love it. They made a quick decision and they just decided to go, and I dunno – they seem a little miserable. I just want to encourage people to find out what they love to do and take time for themselves and figure out what's gonna make them happy and pursue that.
PPHC: I think that's really going to resonate with students, especially the part about grades and the fact that they matter, but they're not everything. We definitely get many students who we have to talk out of dropping a class because they think they're going to get a B. A B is not the end of the world – hang on to the B and do better next time.
ZB: Oh absolutely! I couldn't have said it better myself. I wish you could have told me that when I was at Tech!
PPHC: Oh! And one last thing: can you tell us a little bit about the school that you're currently attending?
ZB: Sure! I am at the University of Houston College of Optometry, and I love it. Houston is an amazing city, really diverse, and that's a big reason why I chose Houston is because the diversity that we see in our clinic here just allows me to really try to immerse myself in different cultures and really learn things about optometry while still learning about people in general, so I love that. So there's 23 colleges of optometry in the United States and it's hard to pick which one you want to go to. There's a lot of really great resources online for students who want to look at different optometry schools and kind of see what they have to offer. But I think another piece of advice I would give to someone, is if you're interested in a school, try to find someone you know that goes there or reach out to somebody that goes there, maybe over social media, and just ask them questions. Ask them whatever. I know so many of my fellow classmates would love to help someone who is trying to decide where to go, and I kind of wish that I would've done that. It's a great program and I wouldn't trade it for the world! I know there's a lot of other great programs, but this is the perfect fit for me.