Each year, Paragon Gives, a Paragon BioTeck initiative, awards the Koch Kellan Scholarship to a third-year ophthalmology student. The scholarship, named for two pillars of the eye care industry — Paul Koch, MD, and Robert Kellan, MD — highlights rising stars who share our dedication to underserved medical needs. This year, we are proud to introduce our 2017 Koch Kellan Scholar: Xinxin Zhang. We caught up with her after the announcement to learn more about her exciting work and future plans.
Interested in becoming our next Koch Kellan Scholar? Learn more at KochKellan.com
Q: What sparked your initial interest in ophthalmology?
As a child growing up in China, I remember seeing many less fortunate people with evident eye conditions. On one occasion, I saw a homeless man on the side of the street with white eyes, which I later discovered were a symptom of cataracts. After becoming more familiar with the medical field, I realized that cataracts were something that could be fixed in 5 or 10 minutes and it dawned on me: I could change a person’s life in a very short amount of time. I was fortunate to have early exposure to ophthalmology in medical school after traveling back to China for a research project with Dr. Michelle Cabrera. I saw first-hand that early ophthalmologic intervention can make a huge difference in someone’s life. For me, no other specialty could surpass the satisfaction of connecting those small, but impactful changes with the long-term continuity of care and hands-on surgical experience found in ophthalmology.
Q: How does ophthalmology relate to your interests in social responsibility?
I believe that ophthalmologists play an integral part of the patient-care team—both as physicians and as surgeons—and are able to build long-term and short-term relationships with patients.
I’m fortunate to dedicate volunteer time to Respectacle, an eyeglass donation program, and the Student Health Action Coalition, which provides free ophthalmologic clinics in the community. Through these organizations, I see patients who otherwise may not have access to specialized care and also develop relationships that give me insight into other conditions which may impact patient reactions to treatment.
It is important for ophthalmologists to focus on the whole patient and not dismiss any psychological side effects of easily treatable eye conditions. Part of the research I have been working on focuses on the psychological aspects of loss of eyesight, such as associations of anxiety and depression with glaucoma.
By focusing on the whole patient, looking beyond ophthalmologic care, I believe doctors can increase patient compliance, catch preventable conditions early enough for effective treatment and give patients the chance to save their vision. Being able to impact people on a personal level and realizing there is this thing I’m able to do that changes their lives, sometimes immediately, is very satisfying.
Q: How have you incorporated technology into your work?
Ophthalmology is a very technologically oriented field and I think that will only advance further as it is incorporated into more practices. I have participated in a project looking at an electronic dry-eye-management scale to use as an iPad app, which would eliminate the need for the administration of the paper dry eye questionnaire by specially trained personnel. I have also worked on projects using corneal topography to assess dry eye, which is a very complex entity, and as technology advances we’re able to find new ways to evaluate and monitor this condition.
Telemedicine through the ROP screening project I participated in is another example of how technology is impacting ophthalmology. A hospital in China sent us retinal photographs and we were able to send back information from the U.S., which they used to supplement their diagnoses and treat their patients. It was really cool to see how technology could be used to support clinicians in professionally (or geographically) isolated areas.
Q: What kind of career do you hope to build?
Looking forward, I am interested in helping underserved areas, such as the poor southern region of North Carolina where I went to high school. One of my priorities is to bring specialist care to patients who would not otherwise have access. Setting my roots in a place like North Carolina, which has a blend of underserved areas and great academic institutions, would allow me to treat populations who need ophthalmology care the most while also continuing to advance the science behind it through research.
Q: How will the Koch Kellan Scholarship assist in the pursuit of your goals?
Receiving the Koch Kellan Scholarship is a great honor. Ophthalmology is not always at the forefront of people’s minds when they think of mainstream medicine. As a student who is very passionate about ophthalmology and its impact, it is extremely encouraging and validating to find a scholarship that honors my future profession.