Professor Noel Alpins AM: Solving the riddle of astigmatism
A problem-solver at heart, ophthalmologist Professor Noel Alpins AM discovered a passion for science and helping people when he was a medical student at the University of Melbourne. He first developed an interest in ophthalmology in his fifth year, thanks to the entertaining lectures of charismatic ophthalmologist Prof John Colvin. “I enjoyed them so much, I went back again in my sixth year!” he recalls fondly.
Prof Alpins also credits Prof Colvin for sparking his interest in innovation and education. “I wasn’t in my paradigm to be a lab researcher, until I had an idea that was going to be relevant to my patients in the clinic,” he says. “When I see something in my own practice that can be improved, I always want to make it better.”
“Astigmatism really was just a mathematical problem, and I don’t think anyone had really understood it in the way before,” says Prof Alpins. Not long after laser vision correction was first introduced to Australia in 1991 by Prof Hugh Taylor, ophthalmologists were doing vision correction operations in two different ways – using surgery, based on the corneal shape and using laser, based on a patient’s spectacle prescription. The numbers used to calculate the astigmatism from these two methods often didn’t match.
It took Prof Alpins about four years to develop the new methodology for analysing and reporting astigmatism. Dubbed ‘The Alpins Method’, it is now the world gold-standard method for analysing astigmatism and forms the basis of a software program he developed called ASSORT.
As a specialist in astigmatism and refractive surgery, Prof Alpins has developed and delivered education programs to train ophthalmologists in this field. In 2017, he was invited to give the prestigious Norman Gregg Lecture (Keynote speech) at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) conference in Perth. Dr Alpins has also written a book on this topic, based on his 20 first-author peer-reviewed scientific papers and in 2017, he was awarded the Order of Australia medal for services to ophthalmology by innovation in Refractive Surgery.
One of his proudest achievements however occurred earlier this year, when Prof Alpins was made an Honorary Clinical Professor at the University of Melbourne. “The University has been so instrumental in my background. It is such a fabulous, independent institution, it gives you the ability to think for yourself. By combining research and education, it allows us to ask questions, find the answers and then teach others what we’ve learnt. It’s incredibly gratifying to be made a Professor at the institution where I studied all those years ago and to have cataract and refractive surgery in the forefront of a cutting-edge specialty like ophthalmology. It’s a specialty I’ve dedicated my professional life to, and I’m really looking forward to working in conjunction with Professor Jonathan Crowston who I respect and admire, and his successor.”