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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Faculty & Staff

Looking at life with fresh eyes


College of Optometry Dean Earl Smith III said one of the things he enjoys the most about being dean is getting the opportunity to work with young faculty and students. | Steven Oster/Houstonian Yearbook

Earl Smith III is proud and forthcoming about the developments and scientific breakthroughs happening at the College of Optometry under his stewardship as dean. He joked that if people knew just how rewarding the position is, there would be a mad dash for his desk.

“Dean is really a great job.  Don’t let the secret out,” Smith said with a grin.

Smith, who received his bachelors and doctorate from UH, joined the University faculty in 1978, and in 2003 was named dean of the college. He said his hiring had nothing to do with the University being loyal to him — it was just circumstantial.

“It was a chance opportunity,” he said.  “My Ph.D. advisor left, and I took his job.  It’s unusual for it to happen that way, and it’s unusual for universities to hire their own. But in this case, it worked out well for me and well for the University.”

In hiring Smith, the University highlighted his body of work in the field of optometry as well as his list of academic and professional awards, which has continued to grow. The school awarded him the Amoco Teaching Excellence Award in 1994. In 2003, he was named the Educator of the Year by the Texas Optometric Foundation. The achievement he is most proud of, the Glenn Fry Award given to Smith by the American Academy of Optometry in 1996, was a result of his work on emmetropization.

Smith continues to conduct his own research, calling it his hobby. He is very excited about a lens design created in conjunction with the Vision Cooperative Research Center in Sydney, Australia that may help prevent or even cure near-sightedness.

Smith said if he wanted to, he could, “do nothing but push paper,” but he enjoys interaction too much for that.

“I like working with young faculty,” he said. “I like being able to identify things that are important for the college and trying to work towards achieving goals and things that move the college forward. I enjoy working with alumni, and I love working with students.”

These days, a big part of Smith’s focus is the planned six-story, 167,000-square-foot extension to the J. Davis Armistead Building. What was once imagined as a 50,000-square-foot, two-story building to house only the optometry school will instead be home to psychology, computer science, biology, and biomedical engineering pursuits.

“Here, we’ll have a chance to rub shoulders with folks that are actually spectacular scholars, so that’s a great thing for us,” Smith said. “They’ll also be building research infrastructure (here) that is critical for the future of the University, so that’s a really important thing.”

Smith said the new building will be equipped with facilities that will help keep the vision research program, already rated “number 1, maybe number 2 in optometry depending on how you measure things,” competitive. It will provide an operatory clean room in which researchers can conduct experiments with transgenetic animals — animals with manipulated genes that require careful handling and an absolutely sterile environment.

As for the optometry school faculty that Smith refers to as “simply outstanding,” they have similarly laudatory things to say about him.

“We are very fortunate to have Dr. Smith in the dean’s office,” Executive Director of the University Eye Institute Nick Holdeman said.

“His innovative leadership will be of value to the UHCO and to the profession of optometry for years to come.”

Professor Laura Frishman shared Holdeman’s sentiments and called Smith “an inspiration to us all.”

With passage of the new health care law, Smith believes the demand for optometrists is going to overtake the supply.

“It’s never been a better time to go into optometry school,” he said. “The profession is doing exceedingly well — the quality of life, the rewards that come with it. It’s not just the monetary rewards but the fulfillment that comes from helping people. And the rewards of being able to contribute to the health and well-being of folks is absolutely fantastic.”

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