Vinita Henry, clinical professor of optometry and UMSL alumna

Vinita Henry is a clinical professor of optometry and UMSL alumna, OD 1985. (Photo by August Jennewein)

There’s a good chance no one knows the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis better than Vinita Henry. The alumna, 1985 OD, was one of 26 students in the college’s second class ever. A residency and faculty position followed, leading her to be closely affiliated with the college every year of its existence except the first in 1980.

Today, Henry serves as a clinical professor of optometry and director of clinical operations overseeing the on-campus Center for Eye Care. She’s one part of the renowned research duo known to many in the eye-care field as “Bennett and Henry,” the other half being Edward Bennett, professor of optometry at UMSL. Henry also recently earned the prestigious Lester Janoff Cornea & Contact Lens Memorial Award from the Association of Optometric Contact Lens Educators for her education and research contributions.

What was optometry student life like when you started?

The faculty was a lot smaller. And there were only first- and second-year students, so there was a pretty close relationship between the faculty and students. We were all in this together to ensure the college made it. It was exciting. They were still converting Marillac Hall (previously a convent) to accommodate us. We’d start out doing courses in one part of the building. They’d move us to renovate it, and then we’d come back to the original area. It was a fresh start.

How did you get your start researching contact lenses and working with Edward Bennett?

Ed, who joined the faculty my second year as a student, would involve students in his research studies. I began working during my third year on one of his studies with about 20 patients. That led to my participation in a contact lens residency he helped start, which was among the first such residencies in the country. My love of contact lenses and research grew through my interactions with Ed and the patients. We continued conducting research together after my residency and published so much it just got to a point where it was always Bennett and Henry. It wasn’t a bad name to be associated with. He’s a fantastic writer and prolific researcher with many good ideas.

You started wearing contacts when you were 12. How much have they evolved since then?

They were expensive and you used to wear them until they were well beyond their usable time period. Now we’ve got all these different designs in soft and gas-permeable lenses, and we throw soft lenses away on a daily, two-week or monthly basis. There are also lenses that can reshape the cornea to correct for myopia (nearsightedness). People wear the lenses when they sleep at night, and they don’t have to wear anything during the day. We’ve progressed from limited contact lens materials and designs to lenses that are truly beneficial to the eye and much more comfortable.

You’ve seen the college grow from its infancy to what it is today. What are you most excited about for the college’s future?

I think it would be wonderful to someday have a new building with an up-to-date clinic and classrooms. We’re getting closer to that. The first phase of a planned three-phase optometry and nursing building could break ground as early as later this year. Marillac Hall was supposed to be temporary, so we’ve waited a long time for this. It will be great for our students to have an improved facility to learn and see patients in. Once we get patients and students here, they love it and have a great experience. But I think we’re at a point where we need to overcome that first impression of our facility to continue to grow.

This story was originally published in the spring 2014 issue of UMSL Magazine.

The UMSL Experience

Ryan Heinz

Ryan Heinz