Optometry Scholar and 2023 graduate Dr. Jaci Bongard stays on at UMSL for residency in cornea and contact lenses
In early July, Dr. Jaci Bongard started her residency in cornea and contact lenses at the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, a little over a month after earning her degree from the college this spring.
Bongard didn’t have a traditional path toward the field of optometry, though. After college, she spent two years working as a lab technician at the Mayo Clinic and another two years working as a microbiologist at a startup pharmaceutical company. In both roles, she worked in labs and found she missed having face-to-face interactions with patients.
“I didn’t get to see the end goal of what I was doing,” she said. “It was just kind of another step in a process. I really was missing being able to talk to people and do the problem-solving aspect of things.”
Bongard started shadowing different patient-forward professions and quickly found optometry to be a good fit.
“Patients love to see you,” she said. “Everyone’s super happy to be in the clinic. There was a great work-life balance, but you still get that problem-solving and interaction that I was looking for in a career.”
Once she was settled on optometry and started looking into different programs across the country, Bongard was drawn to UMSL for its small class size and family feel.
“During my tour, students were all talking together, professors would pass, and you could tell that those students and professors had good relationships,” she said. “You’re comfortable to be able to talk to your professor, ask them any types of questions. It really felt like it was an environment where we were working as a team to try to get everyone to learn what they could and get to the end of the program as opposed to a competition or a place where you just didn’t know anybody.”
While enrolled in the College of Optometry, Bongard also participated in the Optometry Scholars Program, which helps students build upon their research experience by matching them with faculty members with similar research interests. Along with fellow Optometry Scholar and current pediatric resident Dr. Katie Kyles, she presented posters on dyslexia in children at the American Academy of Optometry during her third and fourth years.
Bongard also enjoyed learning from UMSL’s world-class contact lens program, including faculty members Drs.Julie DeKinder, Beth Henderson, Vinita Henry, Carl Kramer and Jessica Tu.
“It was really great to be able to learn from people who really know what they’re doing,” she said. “All of the contact lens faculty have done a lot of fits, and they have a niche where they know a little bit more in certain subjects. You can tell they know what they are doing and are good at teaching it as well. As a student, I’d see a patient and I’d get through the fit and then go to them and be like, ‘This is what I’m seeing.’ And they would lead me to an answer. When they came in, they were really good at being able to explain what they were seeing and how I could change my approach to be able to do better in the future with patients.”
When it came time to apply for residency programs, UMSL was Bongard’s first choice. She said being familiar with the College of Optometry allowed her to hit the ground running when she started her residency in cornea and contact lenses on July 1.
“We are thrilled to have Dr. Bongard as our cornea and contact lens resident,” Dr. DeKinder said. “She is an exceptional young doctor with a strong desire to learn and grow in both her clinical skills and knowledge.”
As a resident, Bongard is enjoying having some new experiences, such as doing fittings on keratoconus and trauma patients at Saint Louis University on Mondays and working with specialty lenses at a private practice on Tuesdays.
“I get a variety of experiences, but I also got to start knowing a little bit more than if I were to go somewhere new,” she said. “I’m getting to see some harder cases, doing things from scratch and getting a lot more independence. I’m very much encouraged to try out what I think I should do and see what works, what doesn’t work – ‘Come ask us questions as you need to and we can give you guidance’ – but it’s really pushing for my independence and to be able to use my problem-solving skills that I learned as a student. I can even tell after a month, I feel so much more confident with certain things that I felt a lot less confident about before.”
Bongard enjoys teaching and interacting with students and said that was part of the reason she chose the residency. She’d like to continue doing so after her residency wraps up next summer, perhaps by working part-time at an optometry school or working at a site that hosts students. Bongard is open to what the future might hold, but for now, she’s enjoying getting the opportunity to work alongside Kyles once again and troubleshoot together to provide the best care for patients.
“It’s nice because I know that she is also here and in the same boat I am,” she said. “We want to start doing more interaction together with pediatrics and contact lenses to be able to maybe do myopia management together. When a child has myopia, or nearsightedness, there are certain things we can do to help prevent that myopia from progressing more than it would and to prevent a child from being so dependent on glasses. That’s an area where our fields overlap, and we can work together on that.”
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