UAB Graduate now heads School of Optometry in Malawi

UAB Graduate now heads School of Optometry in Malawi

Dr. Sara McGowan is the current head of the School of Optometry at Mzuzu University in Malawi. The School was established in 2009 with funding from Optometry Giving Sight, the Brien Holden Vision Institute and Sightsavers. It has so far produced 5 graduates with another 48 students in Years 1-4 of their degrees. Dr. McGowan was recently profiled in Women in Optometry.

In between completing her bachelor’s degree in 2003 and starting optometry school, Sara McGowan, OD, MS, FAAO, took some time to travel the world. That trip started with three months volunteering in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa, and the trip was extended to include nine more months of traveling through Europe. In optometry school, she served as Student Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (SVOSH) president. After completing a residency in ocular disease at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, her University of Alabama at Birmingham SVOSH faculty advisor Marcela Frazier, OD, MPH, FAAO, introduced her to the work of the Brien Holden Vision Institute.

Dr. Sara McGowan


She was hired to teach at the Mzuzu University School of Optometry in Malawi, starting in July 2012.

“I had the impression initially that taking the job wasn’t necessarily going to be a career move, but teaching appealed to me, and I appreciate the model of sustainability. I thought I could do it for a one-year contract,” she recalls. She has since extended the contract twice, and last year was promoted to head of the department. Most of the students who enter the program to earn their bachelor’s degree are between the ages of 17 and 22. 


“Students here grow up learning and being taught by rote memorization. In secondary schools there can be 40 students, one room, and one textbook. When the students enter university, they don’t have the background for critical thinking, and teaching clinical decision-making can be a struggle,” she says.

When school is in session, Dr. McGowan typically spends about 20 hours in clinic or teaching. Plus as department head, she faces the creative problem-solving of vying for resources that are limited, or potentially unavailable.Spotty wi-fi and limited computer access are common complaints amongst the students,

“But you may be surprised at the number of students that have a laptop and/or a smartphone,” she says.

The nation of Malawi has eight ophthalmologists, and a larger mid-level cadre of ophthalmic clinical officers. Optometry still has to carve its niche. There’s no question that there’s a need for access, and the ophthalmology community has welcomed the graduate optometrists into their clinics and have been impressed with their level of skills.

“A few of our graduates are now heads of department and the chain of patient care is adapting to their presence in clinic. I have optometrists telling me that, in their hospitals, the ophthalmologists are insisting that many patients see the optometrist first. The MDs have developed a trust in the optometrist’s abilities to handle patients and make appropriate referrals.”

Mzuzu students

Currently, the optometry program covers four years, but Dr. McGowan says the school will almost certainly switch to a five-year program to ease the academic rigors for these young students.

Students don’t necessarily choose optometry; when they apply to the university, they rank the programs in order of interest. In the first few years, selecting the relatively unknown program seemed like a smart move in order to get accepted.


“The level of training is comparable to any optometry school curriculum, but many students don’t have the basic coursework in math and biology, and, again, the critical thinking ability takes time to develop. If we add a fifth year, at the very least, students will get more time in the clinic.”

Initially, graduates of the program have been assigned to four of the nation’s central hospitals where they complete the civil service requirement, a requirement for anyone who receives a government scholarship. There are another 25 or so district hospitals that will likely bring on future graduates, she says.

Dr. McGowan says that while she enjoys her regular trips back to the U.S. (she almost always comes home for the American Academy of Optometry meeting so she can complete her CE), she doesn’t anticipate a permanent move back to the U.S. soon.

“Living the expat life still appeals to me for now.” She recently bought a car, “and that’s made life a lot easier.”

As the optometry department begins hiring some of the program’s graduates and other staff, Dr. McGowan is beginning to consider what her next move with be.

“I get along with the students, and I like the challenge of daily life where I have to be creative and flexible to get things done, whether that is teaching a clinical skill or accomplishing the most mundane departmental administrative tasks. I never would have thought of “patience” as a professional skill,” she says, laughing at the sometimes frustratingly slow pace.

“At some point I think I will feel accomplished enough here in Mzuzu to move on. The Brien Holden Vision Institute is constantly working on new programs all over the world and I get excited over potential opportunities and possibilities, but where in the world I will end up next I don’t know yet.” 

Article sections courtesy of Women in Optometry

Photos courtesy Women In Optometry

Original article is here