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One To Watch | Sept/Oct '15

One to Watch: Claudia Perez-Straziota, MD

Claudia Perez-Straziota, MD

Claudia Perez-Straziota, MD

Claudia Perez-Straziota, MD is an ophthalmologist specializing in cornea, external disease, and refractive surgery at Forrest Eye Centers in Gainesville, Georgia.

1. Please share with us your background.

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. I have had a lifelong passion for music, and during my high school years I pursued formal training in choir, flute, and piano
in addition to my regular academic studies. I continued lyrical training for many years and actually considered lyrical (operatic) singing as a career. Ultimately, I decided
to pursue medical training and keep singing as a parallel interest. I attended the
Universidad Central de Venezuela (Central University of Venezuela), the major medical school and university in Venezuela, and received my medical degree in 2004.

During my medical training in Venezuela, I was involved in several outreach
activities, providing care to the underprivileged in rural settings. I spent 2 months deep in the jungles of the Amazon, near a small town called San Carlos de Rio
Negro, where I assisted the community and the local natives (Yanomami) with
their primary care needs. I then spent 1 year working alongside a few other recent graduates on Margarita Island, serving as the only physicians for the emergency room. These primary care experiences were outstanding (and enlightening), but I had decided to pursue ophthalmology early on in my training.

2. What drew you to ophthalmology and, specifically,to your field of interest?

While in medical school, I studied physiology of the eye and found it fascinating! I
remember reading about optics and the explanation of why the sky is blue, and I was immediately drawn to ophthalmology (to the annoyance of my study partners, who wanted to move on to the next subject while I kept explaining to them why the sky is blue). I followed this basic interest with clinical rotations at the University Hospital of Caracas and was hooked for life!

I decided early on to pursue training in the United States, which can be quite
challenging for foreign medical graduates, but those who know me know how
persistent I can be. I passed my licensure exams while performing clinical research at the Emory Eye Center and chose to complete both my ophthalmology residency training and corneal fellowship at Emory University.

My initial research work was in refractive surgery, specifically higher-order aberrations and comparative outcomes of different excimer laser platforms. This coupled with my early interest in basic optics and combined with my love of corneal surgeries during residency made this an obvious choice for me.

3. Please describe your current position.

I completed residency and fellowship under a training visa (J-1 visa), so after
training I needed to fulfill a visa requirement by providing care in a medically
underserved area. During my job search, I found a great opportunity fairly close
to my home in Atlanta, where I have served the Gainesville community as the only cornea specialist. I also provide comprehensive eye care, advanced cataract and IOL techniques, and anterior segment reconstruction. I never realized the breadth and depth of pathology presenting well outside the Atlanta area and am proud that I have been able to make a real difference in my patient population. I have also learned the logistics of working in a private practice and have felt particularly honored to be the leading eye care provider for the region’s large Hispanic population.

4. Who are/were your mentors?

My initial research experiences were with Doyle Stulting, MD, PhD, and Brad
Randleman, MD, at Emory Vision and the Emory Eye Center. Dr. Stulting left Emory during my residency, but I continued to work with Brad. Eventually, we realized that we shared more than research interests, and over time he became my partner and now my husband. We not only have had great academic synergy, but Brad has also helped me find my own place in my academic pursuits.

I have found our field to be filled with great people who are willing to take the
time to serve as mentors, collaborators, and friends. George O. Waring IV, MD, FACS, and Karolinne Rocha, MD, PhD, are two people to whom I will always be grateful
for noticing my interests and abilities; we have worked together on several very
inspiring projects. Maria Aaron, MD, my Residency Director at Emory, also played a very supportive role when I was a resident and found everything so literally
“foreign” and inspired me to press on and excel. I never took these things for
granted, and I express my gratitude every chance I get (like here).

5. What has been the most memorable experience of your career thus far?

I have loved so many aspects of my career, but speaking internationally has been
an amazing experience. My Spanish speaking abilities have allowed me to participate in some venues using the local language, which is always a pleasure. Not only is
being on the podium and sharing my thoughts and ideas with people from all over the world a great experience, but also using the “in-between” time to meet with
ophthalmologists from many different countries and compare ways of practicing has been very inspiring. This has been a humbling experience, and I am eager to continue to enjoy it.

6. What are some new technological advances that you have found particularly exciting? Which advances in the pipeline are you most enthusiastic or curious about?

I am excited about recent advances in femtosecond laser surgery. I think that it will be a great asset not only in cataract surgery but also in corneal surgery. The precision and reproducibility of the results can potentially make a big difference in our outcomes and the safety profile of our surgeries.

I am also enthusiastic about endothelial keratoplasty, and I am curious to see if we are going to keep all the different procedures that we currently have or if one of them will prevail over the rest, rendering the others obsolete. I am also curious to see what role, if any, the femtosecond will play in endothelial keratoplasty.

7. What is the focus of some of your research?

The main focus of my research has been assessing the devices we use to evaluate
corneal properties, including thickness, curvature, and higher-order aberrations. We have many devices available today but know little about their comparative efficacy and interchangeability, which is the most relevant information for the practicing clinician.

8. What is a typical day in your life? What keeps you busy, fulfilled, and passionate?

A typical day starts early, getting ready for work, feeding my dog/child Tito, and then starting my 1-hour commute, during which I listen to an audiobook (I’ve already listened to 19 books in 24 months!). My clinic day is filled with a variety of diverse
patients and surgeries, and then I’m home and able to pursue one of my many
passions—right now, I’m primarily focused on learning French and my singing lessons.

9. What advice can you offer to individuals who are just now choosing their career paths after finishing residency or fellowship?

I would advise new ophthalmologists to pursue something that they truly enjoyed learning about in training. We can become proficient in all kinds of surgeries, but the fun of our everyday work is in thinking about what we are seeing and figuring out how to fix or at least improve it. Of course, you have to enjoy the surgeries, but I think that we are all much more flexible in our likings of surgical techniques than we are in our likings of the intellectual aspect of each specialty.

I would also advise them to make sure to keep space in their lives for personal growth, doing whatever it is that makes them happy and helps them grow as individuals, be it exercise, music, languages, literature, or all of the above! We cannot thrive if we are not happy, and we cannot advance in our careers if we don’t thrive.

10. Tell us about an innovative procedure you are performing or a new imaging/diagnostic tool that has improved your practice.

I recently switched from DSAEK to ultra-thin DSAEK, which the Georgia Eye Bank prepares for me with a double-pass microkeratome technique. These lenticules are invariably less than 100 µm and usually around 50 µm. I have found them much easier to manipulate than regular-thickness DSEK lenticules and believe they clear much faster postoperatively. This is anecdotal for now; hopefully I will be able to look at this in a more formalized way in the near future.