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This week’s interview was such a pleasure! Neema is an Optometry Lecturer at the University of Bradford who also has a PhD in the genetics of short-sightedness and as if that wasn’t impressive enough, he is still in his 20’s!  Our chat covered a lot of ground from highlighting the importance of sight to gemstone collecting and working on TV filming sets! A fascinating conversation peppered with profound reflections and good advice.

Role at the University of Bradford?
Lecturer in Optometry

How would you describe your role?
I am an optometrist which means I look at people’s eyes and being a lecturer now I teach students how to do that. Particularly, as I’m a module leader for the contact lenses module, I teach students how to look after people that wear contact lenses and how to fit them.

How has the lockdown affected you & your work?
Me personally, it’s made me want to move! I can’t wait to move to a house or something with a bit more space and outside the city. When I moved here to Bradford, I moved in quite a rush so I live in a flat in the city centre. I’ve also gotten two kittens, which is a change in that respect.

In terms of work, if anything it has doubled the workload. Trying to teach students how to fit and work with contact lenses online is kind of impossible, it’s very difficult to do without being in the students’ physical presence. So, with the help of colleagues I have re-written that whole syllabus and delivery and so there is more online contact time with students through lectures and weekly seminars, plus two sets of practical sessions per week on a rota system to make sure all students are at the level they need to be clinically.

What exciting projects are you working on right now?
My background is primarily in the genetics and environmental influences of someone becoming short-sighted. Currently 1 in 5 people are short-sighted and that figure is increasing, predicted to increase to 50% by 2050. Now, that doesn’t just mean the need for glasses, that means that eventually a large number of those people may lose their vision in the later years of their life which we need to manage.

The exciting bit is that we’re in the midst of discussing a research project that we hope will be able to stop people from becoming short-sighted completely. We’re looking at doing an intervention with children who are at higher risk, which has been given ethical go-ahead and should lead to some positive results given what we’ve preliminarily measured and estimated.

A highlight of your time on campus/ in role so far?
The best highlight I can think of is from when I started this job. I hadn’t finished my PhD yet and the team was really accommodating. I passed my viva assessment in November 2019 and it was all finalised in April 2020 which was a huge relief!

(Here’s a BBC article about the research Neema carried out as part of his PhD as well as the publication of results. Thanks to this research, a person’s DNA can be used to measure their risk of becoming short-sighted. In other words, these findings can be used to stratify individuals based on their genetic risk of developing short-sightedness. For example, parents who are worried about their child’s eyesight (short sightedness can be hereditary) could undergo a genetic screening to find out how likely they are to develop it.

A funny/ embarrassing story from your time on campus?
I’m really trying to think of what I could have for this question.
On my first day, I started by spending some time signing papers in the HR department, the usual. However, from 10am onwards I was pretty much thrown into teaching and so spent all day getting lost in my own building. There was a time I locked myself out and had to wait for students to arrive with their passes so they could let me in.

I’ve also just remembered another embarrassing story, and this one is somewhat embarrassing! I had just met a colleague for the first time and my shoes that day were very slippery with no grip, so whilst walking back to the building together I fell down the steps and was very embarrassed! Luckily, my colleague was very professional about it. I bought new shoes that weekend!

A surprising/interesting fact about yourself?
I’ve worked on a couple of TV sets as an optician fitting the actors’ contact lenses for shows like Casualty. This includes prosthetic lenses in the show to create certain effects so I was part of the team that helped actors backstage. It’s crazy because per 30 seconds of film it can take a full day of filming so actors would have to wear these large or unusual lenses for long periods of time so I’d check, re-moisten and refit whenever needed.

A non-work related fact is that I collect gemstones and sometimes make rings using gems like Opals.

What inspires you?
Such a big question! Inspiration can be similar to motivation, if you understand what I mean. I think what keeps me inspired is good ideas. If I hear a good idea or I come up with one, it really inspires me to answer the idea if it’s a question or an unknown. If there is something I’m really intrigued by or fascinated by I will Google the hell out of it!

I don’t know if I can tangibly define it for you, sometimes history or great efforts by individuals can be inspiring. I’m amazed by things we can learn from history like how people lived, or seeing how facts unfolded and thinking about how it could have worked out differently ,for example, the Cuban missile crisis. To this day, I’m amazed that Vasily Arkhipov who was not meant to be on the nuclear weapon carrying submarine almost single-handedly averted a nuclear war that would change the course of history, effectively saving the world despite the encouragement of all other officers on board. A more recent example is that of Dr Li Wenliang who tried to warn people of Coronavirus late last year despite pressure from government officials, and unfortunately passed away from the disease earlier this year.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
I think I would tell myself not to take things so seriously. I very much prioritised getting myself set up in a job… it’s why I’ve pushed so hard to get from my PhD to this job straight away and I feel very young in my department as I’m still in my 20’s and feel I’ve rushed my life in some ways. Now I’m actively finding ways to not overburden myself with work. So if I could tell myself as a younger kid I’d say to A) be more confident and B) to enjoy life a bit more and go travelling. I mean no one is going to sit there on their deathbed and say “Ah man, I should have spent more time in the office!”.

If you could time travel 100 years, would you go into the past or the future? And why?
Would I be able to comeback? (yes)
I think I’d go to the future just because the curiosity in me would really want to know what it’s like. If I could, I’d do both because I’d love to experience as much as I can and it would be fascinating to see what the world was like 100 years ago but I can at least read about it, whereas I can’t do that for the future. It would be amazing to see my family in the past but I’d want to see what the situation with the human race is like, how far we got with technology, if we were right with any predictions we have for the future and AI, did we manage to go off Earth to Mars, to see if we found life elsewhere in the universe, and hope that I might even be able to experience space travel.

What are you fearful of in the future and what are you hopeful for?
I’m still fearful of the future of my career, I think that will never finish. I’m sorry to sound so dark, but I’m also very fearful of when my parents pass away. I’m an only child which means when my parents pass away, I will be alone which is a terrifying prospect and they don’t always look after themselves so that’s probably one of my biggest fears.

At this point, I’m really looking forward to getting back to normal after Covid. I now watch TV and I get uncomfortable watching people getting too close to one another and don’t want that mindset to set in. I feel like I’m at the point where I can’t wait for it to be over and to get to a time when being in close proximity to other people will be normal again.

What question are you never asked that you wish you were?
Interesting question. I think it’s something everyone needs to be asked more often which is “what do you want?”. A lot of the time I don’t know the answer to that question but I should find out, it’s the sort of question we should ask ourselves more often… it changes your mental status, and is important to try and consider during dark times with mental health.

If you enjoyed getting to know Neema you will love the rest of the ‘This is Us’ series. Check out my previous chats with Ana and Michael and stay tuned for more coming soon!

Also, I always appreciate feedback so if you have any ideas that would enhance this blog series, feel free to drop me a line – .

Neema suggested I add a quirky question so look out for it in future interviews!