Renaissance Dean

Rodney Nowakowski Adds Optometry Dean to a Long and Colorful Resume

By Grant Martin

0912 optdean1Rodney Nowakowski is
the first alumnus of the
UAB School of Optometry to
serve as the school's dean.
Current and future students of the UAB School of Optometry are likely to know Rodney Nowakowski, O.D., Ph.D., as their dean, since Nowakowski was named the school’s fifth dean in early 2011.

To others, Nowakowski may always be remembered as a teacher, considering his more than 35 years as a UABSO faculty member. But throughout those same years, there are also those who knew Nowakowski primarily as their optometrist, a student, a geneticist, a musician, or an airplane pilot. And when Nowakowski casually mentions his earlier stints as a lifeguard, a soldier, and an instructor of ballroom dancing, one may legitimately wonder if there ever has been a dean with a resumé quite so colorful.

“I’m the archetypical jack of all trades, master of none,” Nowakowski jokes. “I just have a passion for learning new things.” That passion may have been evident earlier in Nowakowski’s life, but there was a brief period when he was a college dropout working as a lifeguard on South Florida beaches with precious little on his resume that would suggest he could one day be dean of the most prestigious optometry school in the world.

Finding Focus

Nowakowski was born in Demming, New Mexico, but he grew up in Miami, Florida, after his family moved there when he was a year old. By the time he reached high school, Nowakowski had developed an interest in biology, but even then, it wasn’t a singular focus. “My scientific interest was biology, but my outside interest was music,” he says. “When I was in junior high school, a musician from Cuba visited the home of a friend, and he played classical pieces on the guitar. I asked if he would consider giving lessons, but he scoffed at the idea, saying he wouldn’t have the patience to sit and listen to someone making the repeated mistakes that come with learning the instrument.”

0912 optdean6Although he was trained in classical guitar, Nowakowski would later experiment with jazz and other styles while performing with fellow optometric faculty in the band "Rod and the Cones." A short time later, however, Fidel Castro came to power, and that guitarist, Juan Mercadal, fled to Miami with a wife, two children, a guitar, and $23. Before long, he became a reluctant music teacher, and Nowakowski became his enthusiastic first student. “He convinced the authorities that his guitar wasn’t worth much so that they would let him bring it with him,” Nowakowski recalls. “It certainly wasn’t priceless, but it was  actually a very valuable guitar. I took lessons from him for years, and when I didn’t have money to pay, I would cut his grass.”

Nowakowski’s beginner mistakes aside, the teacher-student relationship flourished. His teacher would encourage him to consider a career in music, but by then Nowakowski’s scientific interests were becoming more prominent in his life. Nevertheless, he would serve a stint in the Army, two years at Florida State, and two years as a lifeguard before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Miami. And only then did he finally discover a calling in optometry.

Birmingham Bound

Hard Hat Area

Prior to his being named dean, Nowakowski held several other administrative positions, including chief of staff of the UABSO clinics.

That position put him in the unique position of overseeing a multimillion-dollar renovation of the ground floor of the Henry Peters Building.

“We spent years just planning the project and trying to find out what people’s needs would be,” he says. “We actually built a mock examination room so that people could picture what it would be like and could point out specific needs or areas of concern.”

Once the planning was done, construction began, and while Nowakowski was monitoring the progress of the renovations, there were still patients to see. With the ground floor clinics completely gutted, temporary clinics opened on an upper floor, while pediatrics and primary clinics moved down the street.

Eighteen months later, an official ribbon-cutting ceremony unveiled state-of-the-art clinics, an optical shop, and an entire new entrance and façade for the building facing University Boulevard, UAB’s main thoroughfare.

Learn more about UAB Eye Care here

“I was in graduate school studying math and biomedical engineering,” Nowakowski recalls, “and the only guy teaching that was building an artificial heart that was the size of a room. I didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of future in that, so I started looking at other options.”

One option was revealed through a physicist friend who had signed on to teach optics at the brand new UABSO. He encouraged Nowakowski to consider optometry as a career.

“I came up and met with Dr. Henry Peters, the founding dean,” Nowakowski says. “We talked for quite a while about the school and about my interests, and he spoke as if I were already a student. I finally had to interrupt to ask him, ‘Does this mean I have been  accepted to the program?’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, and then just went right on with what he had been saying.”

Nowakowski enrolled at the UABSO in 1971, just two years after the founding of the school. Soon after graduating, he went to work for the school, and before long a whole new area of scientific discipline was revealed to him. “For my first job in optometry, I was director of the low vision clinics, and we had a clinic at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega,” he says. “I kept seeing children who were affected by hereditary eye disease, and I wanted to learn more about it.”

To satisfy that curiosity, Nowakowski began studying genetics at UAB. Soon after, he added a Ph.D. in genetics to his O.D. “That has impacted my career more than I could have realized,” he says. “There has been so much change in the treatment of eye disease. One of the most fascinating developments of my career has been seeing how our understanding of certain diseases has changed. Diseases that once caused irreversible blindness now actually have a chance of being cured.”

0912optdean4

Into the Blue

With so many professional interests and responsibilities, Nowakowski has found a unique way to stay grounded—by taking to the skies.
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In recent years, Nowakowski’s expertise in genetics has led to him being named a board member of eyeGENE—a nationwide effort to develop a repository of DNA from people with hereditary eye disease. “Today, we have a repository with more than 2,000 samples,” he says.

A New Era

With more than 35 years on the UABSO faculty and a wide variety of professional and personal interests to occupy his time, one might ask why Nowakowski would choose to tackle the job of dean. But for an alumnus with a lifetime of devotion to his school, a more natural question might be, “Why not?”

“I guess I felt I had accomplished everything else within this setting that I wanted to accomplish,” Nowakowski says. “As an alumnus, it was interesting to be the first graduate to serve as dean. And having done administrative work through the years, I knew I could gain some satisfaction from this type of work.”

In order to find such satisfaction in the short term, Nowakowski has had to steer the school through the toughest economic environment it has faced through his long career, in a climate that has seen the financial strain on optometry students reach an all-time high. “I definitely felt that the school needed a dean who could get the school through the economic downturn,” he says. “It’s difficult and disappointing to not have the resources that we have had in the past, but we need to find a way to weather this stretch while figuring out a strategy that will take advantage of this situation."

 

This story originally appeared in UAB Optometry, the magazine of the UAB School of OptometryTo view a pdf of the complete issue, click here.