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25 years of service to eye and vision research

image-tools (100)In 1988, Jill Keeffe was working in a clinic assessing children referred for support services, due to vision impairment. At that time, there was very little research into low vision.

Jill’s colleague, ophthalmologist Dr Hector Maclean suggested she consider a PhD under his supervision at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Ophthalmology, studying low vision in children. “I agreed and Hector became my supervisor and mentor,” Jill said.

Three years later, she was offered a job to develop a low vision kit for developing countries. “The aim was to design a kit that could be used to assess low vision in any country in the world, was small and light enough to fit into an envelope for ease of transport, and was affordable,” said Jill.

The kit tested distance, near vision and refractive error and was trialled in 36 countries. It was published by the World Health Organization (WHO), initially in English, French and Chinese. “It’s still used to this day and has now been translated into 11 languages that I’m aware of,” said Jill.

Many developing countries don’t have the capacity to do research, so the Population Health researchers have to make their work effective in a variety of environments. Jill points to a photo on her wall of a concrete shack in the slums of the Philippines.

“Solutions that might seem simple to us, are not so for others. That boy in the photo had problems with his vision. His family had taken him to the market and bought glasses for him, but the lenses were ordinary window pane glass, so they were useless,” said Jill, shaking her head.

Reflecting on her 25 years with the Department of Ophthalmology, and the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA), Jill has many fond memories. “It’s been fantastic. I’ve had some incredible opportunities. As a Department and as CERA, we’ve taken a leading role in eye health programs throughout the world.”

The Department of Ophthalmology was designated as a WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Blindness in 1992, the only such Centre in Australia. “The Centre’s role is to lead training and research for prevention of blindness in our region, with a particular focus on supporting developing countries,” Jill said. She became Director of the Centre in 2007.

Jill’s significant achievements in the field of eye research were recognised in 2007, when she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for ‘services to public health particularly in the area of vision testing and as a contributor to the advancement of eye care education and practice’.

However according to Jill, her proudest achievement is seeing the many students she’s mentored become leaders in their field. “I’m proud when I see people I’ve trained excelling. I’m delighted when I see students coming from overseas to do their Masters or PhD and then going back to their own countries, to contribute and start improving things.”

Professor Keeffe will be stepping down as Head of the CERA’s Population Health Unit at the end of this month. She has taken on an honorary appointment with the Department of Ophthalmology and will continue to play an active role as supervisor to a number of research students. CERA and the University of Melbourne Department of Ophthalmology would like to express our deep appreciation to Jill for her enormous contribution to eye health research over the past 25 years.