You know him as YO Info’s new editor and you’ve probably read some of his contributions here, but who is he? We sat down with Rob Melendez to learn more about his career path and how this one-time would-be optometrist became a leader in ophthalmology.
During my senior year in college, I was admitted to optometry school. Before I confirmed my acceptance, my dean suggested that I spend a day with two ophthalmologists. I’m not sure what he knew, but that advice changed my life.
One ophthalmologist I shadowed that day had been an optometrist himself for 10 years. When I asked about his career change, he said he felt that practicing as an optometrist limited him and didn’t allow him to treat patients completely. So he left his practice and went to medical school to become an ophthalmologist. His example was part of what helped me decide to turn down optometry school myself and apply to medical school at the University of New Mexico instead, where I also did my internship.
‘Advocacy Felt Natural’
During my residency at the University of Texas, San Antonio, I got involved in an advocacy program. I’d been involved in school politics through high school and college, so advocacy just felt like a natural first step in my volunteering efforts for ophthalmology. I guess I’ve always had a need to discover what I can do to help others and make a situation better.
Because of my involvement with the UT advocacy program, I learned about a group that was going to the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum in Washington, DC. I applied to go and was fortunately one of the handful of residents chosen to attend in the pilot effort which is now known as the Academy’s Advocacy Ambassador’s Program.
Including that first year, I have attended the Mid-Year Forum for six years now, and every year, I am amazed at how much we have done and how much more there is yet to do. As I’ve learned, sometimes that’s a matter of simply doing, but other times it’s a matter of asking the right questions first.
See the Problem, Find the Solution
As a senior resident, I was elected chief resident for one year. One of my first actions was to send out a survey to see what the program directors across the country wanted from their chief residents so we could be meet those needs. I also asked program directors what was being done to prepare chief residents for the position. I quickly learned that the answer was “nothing.”
To solve both issues, we started the Chief Residents’ Leadership Forum with CareerPhysician in 2004. I am so proud of this project. We are blessed to have the Academy president involved each year at our event. It has grown into an annual conference that promotes, educates and grows tomorrow’s leaders. I firmly believe that the young leaders coming out of the Chief Residents’ Leadership Forum will be future Academy leaders.
After my first Mid-Year Forum, I knew I was moving back to New Mexico. I also knew I wanted to be an officer in our state ophthalmology society. So I joined the society, then I sent a survey to see what our state members needed and/or wanted. I also suggested we change the name of the state society to the New Mexico Academy of Ophthalmology (NMAO) to more closely mirror our parent society, the Academy. Finally, I redid our state Web site to be more of a tool for our members.
Not long after, I was elected secretary/treasurer of the state society. I also now sit on the NMAO executive committee and was appointed the educational chair.
…Gain National Recognition
I didn’t necessarily realize that involvement with a state society could draw national attention, but apparently my work with the Chief Residents’ Leadership Form, as well as my positions with my state society, caught the eye of some of the Academy leaders. In 2006, I gladly accepted an invitation to be a part of the Young Ophthalmologist (YO) committee.
Around the same time, the NMAO also nominated me to be part of the Academy’s Leadership Development Program. This year-long program is offered to 18 to 20 doctors every year and designed to develop leaders at the state and possibly national levels. Each participant is required to do a project; mine was to evaluate why YOs remain in or leave their first job. Involvement in this program had the biggest impact on me as a young professional. It created new opportunities for me, including my position as editor of the ONE network, and my new role as the YO Info editor.
Give Back to the Next Generation
Just as I've been affected by the various leaders I've met and the opportunities I’ve had, I believe we also have a responsibility to inform, educate and mentor the next generation. I personally love to mentor and tutor, both the science and business of medicine, helping to guide other young ophthalmologists starting out in their journey.
I have had many medical students do their ophthalmology rotations with me and I am so proud to have several of them specialize in ophthalmology, such as Nate Roybal, MD, PhD, from UCLA and Rebekah Allen, MD, from Casey Eye Institute. It is so fulfilling to know that you made one small difference in their lives, with hope that they too will improve our profession. If all of us strive to improve one area in ophthalmology, can you imagine what our profession will look like in five years, and then in 20?
The best piece of advice I can give to any young ophthalmologist looking to be a leader in the ophthalmology community is to get involved locally and in your state society first. Find the one area where you can make a difference and improvement—the area you feel passionately about—and make your mark there.
The Academy has so many programs in place to help you lead and succeed at all levels. By finding your passion, working with your local and state societies, advocating for ophthalmology and mentoring the next generation, you can serve your patients and your profession for years to come.
About the Author: Robert F. Melendez, MD, MBA, is a partner at Eye Associates of New Mexico, assistant clinical professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and section chief of ophthalmology for Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. Additionally, Dr. Melendez is author of Ophthalmology Buzzwords™, co-founder of the Juliette RP Vision Foundation and editor of YO Info.