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Eye On the Prize

Surgical Photo 

 Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer

The old maxim ‘behind every great man there’s a better woman’ might still have some truth in it - although now women are now also beside and ahead.  But perhaps a better truism is ‘behind every great woman is her mother’.

FMHS Professor of Ophthalmology, Helen Danesh-Meyer is certainly one person who attributes her success to both her parents, particularly her mother.

My mother inspired me to do medicine. As one of the first women to attend medical school in Iran, she was a trail-blazer.  Her philosophy was that obstacles were only challenges waiting to be conquered! And to challenge the establishment she’d do things like wearing mini-skirts to classes.” 

Helen, did her undergraduate studies at Otago and her fellowship training at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. She then joined the University of Auckland and completed both a Doctorate of Medicine (MD) and Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD).  She was appointed the youngest professor in the medical school in 2008 and the first female Professor of Ophthalmology in New Zealand.  She divides her work time between eye surgery, research and teaching. And with her equally busy periodontal surgeon husband she’s parenting two daughters.

Getting the balance right can be a struggle. 

“I thrive on multi-tasking, which helped enormously as I balanced raising a young family in parallel with pursuing a surgical and academic career,” she said.

“My young daughters would frequently join me in lectures and on post-operative ward rounds. Once, near the end of a lecture I was giving, my three-year old quietly got off her chair, came to the podium, pulled at the hem of my skirt, and said: ‘Mum, I think we have all had enough!’ She was probably right.”

Prioritizing parenting hasn’t always been easy.  When one of her girls was small she had a relatively serious accident at school and needed to be taken to emergency.     

“I know all she’ll have wanted was her mother. But I was operating. So I didn’t even know she was injured for several hours.”  

Fortunately, there is more than one path available today she believes. 

“Surgical training has traditionally been all-consuming: unusually prolonged and intense, and not amenable to part-time activity. However, attitudes and the configuration of training programmes are changing, reducing some of the challenges for both men and women who seek balanced lives.”

Helen says she is grateful for the support people like her Head of Department, Professor Charles McGhee have provided her.  

“Professor McGhee prioritizes academic excellence it in a way that allows achievement by different individuals through different paths and in differing timeframes. Such imaginative excellence-led thinking should be at the core of solutions to achieve greater diversity in leadership at our institutions.”

 And for the young women following in her footsteps including, perhaps, her daughters, Helen has this advice.

“Ignore people who attempt to set you limitations. Create your own path. And do it on your terms - embrace your feminine qualities on the way.”

This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of the University of Auckland's UniNews.