The Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Award recognizes exemplary leadership and service and is only given when an individual rises to the occasion in an exceptional way. During the 2021 Doctoral Convocation and Hooding Ceremony, the award was presented to Elizabeth Steele, OD, FAAO, associate professor and associate dean for clinical affairs.

“Surely when joining the faculty in 2004 Dr. Steele wasn’t expecting to face the challenges of providing care and education during a pandemic,” Dean Kelly Nichols said. “When this happened, she rose to the occasion. She worked tirelessly to establish COVID-19 safety protocols. Her efforts to keep everyone safe affected the entire UAB School of Optometry community, which is why I chose her for this award.”

When the clinic closed in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty, staff and students needed reassurance that it was safe to return to the clinic to resume providing patient care. Students were concerned about their ability to continue clinical learning, a crucial aspect of their optometric education.

Steele outlined a safer patient intake process to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as led faculty, staff and student training on the new processes. She ensured the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) at a time when resources were sometimes scarce.

When students returned to the clinic for the summer semester, telehealth and other virtual patient care activities became part of their clinical rotations. From home and in the clinic, they learned new ways to provide patient care. Telscreens, HIPAA-compliant digital projection systems, connected to cameras showing the patient and slit-lamp images, were added to exam rooms so that students at home could see what is normally viewed by being physically present. Steele championed these additions to clinical care and education.

“I am honored to be this year’s award recipient,” Steele said. “My efforts would not have been meaningful, however, without the help and teamwork of the amazing staff at UAB Eye Care, the supportive faculty and residents, and the student interns. 

“Staff worked tirelessly and learned new tasks. Residents served long hours and set the pace for patient care. Faculty saw patients on their own and learned new technology to enhance education during a difficult time. Student interns accepted new challenges with flexibility and understanding. Everyone has worked so hard to improve the system – every day. Nothing we have done is perfect, but it has kept us going, and in a positive way.”