Faculty Profile: John Laurent, O.D., Ph.D.
By Grant Martin
From riding elephants in Thailand and diving in the East China Sea to conducting vision research in Florida and California, a career in optometry has given John Laurent, O.D., Ph.D., opportunities beyond what he ever could have imagined. But when asked to pick a favorite of his many optometric posts, he doesn’t hesitate. “I can honestly say that my current position on faculty is the best job I’ve ever had,” says Laurent, now in his second year on faculty at the UABSO. “I have been very lucky throughout my career to have a number of jobs and assignments that I truly loved.”
That’s quite a statement from a man who confesses that his early impressions of academia—and optometry practice—left something to be desired. “I hated high school,” Laurent says. “I took a year off before starting college, only to find that my feelings about school hadn’t changed.” Despite that rocky start, Laurent got a reprieve from his academic woes when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Germany to work as a clerk. Little did he know that that experience would lead him to the two professions—optometry and military service—that would define his career.
A fellow GI in Germany encouraged Laurent to pursue optometry, and when Laurent returned stateside, he discovered that his perspective on college had changed. “Coming back after the Army, the world looked so much different,” he says. Laurent went on to complete pre-optometry coursework at Wisconsin and then earned M.S. and O.D. degrees from Ohio State with the help of an Army scholarship. After a payback tour in Germany, he practiced optometry in Wisconsin but soon felt constrained by the permanence of a small-town practice. He opted to return to the military, embarking on a Naval career that would span the next 26 years and would take him to such places as Hawaii, San Diego, and Okinawa. He also made an important stop in Birmingham, where he earned a Ph.D. from the UABSO Department of Vision Sciences. It was during that stop that Laurent also met his wife Becky, a Birmingham attorney.
"It’s fascinating to see the change in students from the first time they enter the clinic to their fourth year. You see them transform from students to professionals."
After retiring from the Navy, Laurent returned to the UABSO for a residency—an experience he would now recommend to other military personnel nearing retirement. “As a retirement gift to myself, I did the cornea and contact lens residency,” he says. “I didn’t expect to learn so much, since I had been fitting contact lenses for years, but I did. It was a refreshing experience, like being a fifth-year optometry student, except in my case I was 30 years out of school.”
Since joining the faculty, Laurent says he is surprised daily by the pleasures of academic life. “Teaching in contact lens labs, teaching a business course, and conducting two research projects keeps me very busy,” he says. “But I also enjoy the opportunities to work in the faculty practice and the student clinic. It’s fascinating to see the change in students from the first time they enter the clinic to their fourth year. You see them transform from students to professionals.”