Now working as an optometrist in the UK, Sarah Wassnig-Riglar has a passion for working with, learning from, and supporting eyecare professionals from across the globe.
Sarah Wassnig-Riglar wants everyone to access affordable eye care and believes clinician training is at the heart of this issue. After working in the USA and now the U.K., she has also started an organisation to support fellow Australian and New Zealand expatriate optometrists.
Sarah graduated with a Bachelor of Optometry in 2010 and completed a Specialist Certificate in the Management of Paediatric Patients in 2016. She also has a Master of Public Health from UNSW. She travelled to Africa as a student and worked in Bendigo, Darwin and Townsville before heading overseas to work and teach.
Why the University of Melbourne?
For as long as I can remember, when discussing the adventures my brother and I would have as young adults my mother snuck into the conversation “when you study at the University of Melbourne”. So, from a young age I expected to leave rural Victoria and attend the University of Melbourne.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew where I wanted to be – surrounded by people who, like me, loved to learn. To this day when I walk on campus and look up at the Coat of Arms, I feel privileged and proud to belong to this institution.
What are your strongest memories of university?
South lawn. I think I learned as much in class as I did sitting on south lawn with people from all over the state, country and world. It was here that I learned about the kind of person I wanted to be and the global injustices that I was passionate about.
Also, Dawn Gleeson’s first year biology class – anyone who has taken her class understands!
Who motivated you at university?
John Jennings – it is because of his mentorship that I am the inquisitive clinician and generous educator that I am today.
Mitchell Anjou – it is because of his insistence that I back up my dreams with evidence that I am well prepared to fight for what I believe in.
Anthea Cochrane – she has quietly championed every optometrist who has graduated during her time in the Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences. I know she will always be in my corner.
What goals did you set yourself and have you stuck to that plan?
I wanted to be in public health care providing optometry services to those without access to ocular health care. I started my career in rural Victoria, which opened my eyes to the importance of local advocacy and collaborative healthcare.
My work with Orbis International has shown me the importance of health practitioner training in creating access to quality health care. While I always hoped to compliment my clinical practice with public health work, I didn’t expect that my passion would be in the form of health practitioner education and that it would take me around the world at times.
What drew you to your area of expertise?
It is a privilege to change a person’s ability to function within their family, workplace and community with a pair of lenses, be it contacts, glasses or visual aids.
With uncorrected refractive error being the largest cause of vision loss globally and 90 per cent of people suffering from visual impairment being from a preventable or treatable cause, the impact of our speciality is inspiring and like no other.
Tell us more about your role and how your university helped you prepare for it.
I have experienced several types of optometry education, either as a lecturer or student, and I think one of the greatest gifts I received from my education at the University of Melbourne was to be evidence based in my clinical practice.
The University of Melbourne instilled in me an appetite for learning and questioning.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome these?
Starting again. And again. Every time I have moved country or locumed in a new place I’ve needed to re-establish myself, prove myself to my colleagues and patients, and build a new career path. It’s hard and it’s extremely humbling.
This is why I started the group, Expatriate Optometrists Australian and New Zealand. Weekly, I am able to connect international colleagues to support one another through the difficult transition of moving abroad and starting their career over again.
What are some career highlights and what’s next?
1. Working in rural Victoria – still to this day one of the happiest times of my working life.
2. Working at one of the oldest optometry institutions in the world, the New England College of Optometry, and being inspired by so many young, inquisitive and passionate students.
3. Traveling to Africa and China with Orbis International to teach optometry – Orbis’ conviction that access to quality eye care starts with quality practitioner education and local advocacy is exciting and contagious.
4. Interviewing (the late African optometry pioneer) Dr Uduak Udom on her career and the power women have as change makers in their communities.
After maternity leave and the COVID-19 pandemic, I am excited to be back at work and seeing patients. I am just about to complete my qualifying exams in the United Kingdom, and I am incredibly excited to be expanding my optometry community to include the UK.
What is your driving force for doing your best at work?
I love helping patients, especially those who have had trouble finding a solution to achieving functional vision – I love a puzzle. Even more if that puzzle includes collaborative care with other healthcare professionals and educators. I learn so much participating in collaborative care.
How important is work life balance?
Extremely important and what my work life balance has looked like has changed significantly over my career. When I did not have the commitment of family, I took every possible opportunity to expand my skills, knowledge and community, both in healthcare and in my personal life. Since having kids and during the COVID-19 pandemic, my world has gotten smaller with most of my focus being on my daily patient work and supporting my family – and that’s okay.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Be flexible in your plans and dreams. I never would have imagined that my career would have taken me across the world teaching or to meet the amazing visionaries that I have had the privilege of working alongside.
I have had some plans that didn’t work out at all how I wanted and other plans that have blossomed in ways I never imagined. Have a plan but be flexible.
What advice do you have for current students?
Say yes. Be honest, but always say yes to challenging opportunities. This is particularly important for women who often underestimate their abilities and their readiness for a new challenge.
Don’t back out of something because you feel you are underqualified. The fact that you are being asked proves you are ready for this challenge, and you’ll most likely find it is only your confidence holding you back. Your boundaries will only expand as you lean against them, so challenge yourself.