Aravind Eye Care System is a prestigious place affiliated with some great American Eye Hospitals. The Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore, UCSF’s Proctor Foundation and the Kellogg Eye Center in Michigan all have research affiliations with Aravind. On occasion doctors from India visit these clinics and vice versa. During my first few weeks in Pondicherry, Dr. Ramulu, the Glaucoma Chief at Wilmer Eye came to teach some classes and offer his expertise at the hospital. Since we were sharing the guest house, I was privy to some really cool conversations about research, innovation, and hospital management.

The patient population at Aravind is very amenable to participating in research as subjects. Many people clear an entire day’s schedule for a trip to the hospital and are happy to contribute their time to advance science. As a result, many of the senior doctors are able to conduct research without a shortage of subjects. On his first day in town, Dr. Ramulu held a workshop for the senior doctors to discuss their current research projects. I somehow scored an invitation (really all I had to do was express interest) and was immersed in such an interesting space. Largely, the questions the doctors were trying to answer with their work were public health ones. For example, without going into too much detail, how to increase family screening in diseases with hereditary components. Another was the chief complaints that a patient with x disease typically presents with. The questions reflect the landscape in which these doctors practice: a dispersed population with poor health literacy and doctors whose expertise is stretched thin. What was really interesting to me is how much the doctors were willing to alter the parameters of their research and refine their questions upon suggestion. It seemed truly collaborative. The biggest takeaway for me (though I don’t know yet how much research I will do in my career) was acquiring data from experiments in such a way that one set of patients could be the subjects of multiple studies.

Unstructured conversations can often be as insightful as structured ones. The informal setting of a guest house dining table also held some good discussions. For example, a young local engineer has been collaborating with Aravind to use virtual reality in screening for a certain disease. Over a few meals, he discussed with Dr. Ramulu and Dr. Venkatesh (the chief medical officer at Aravind, Pondicherry) how VR might be useful for patient education as well. With impressive speed, an innovative plan was hatched over a few dinners.

As hospital chiefs, Dr. Venkatesh and Dr. Ramulu discussed some of the challenges associated with their work. Discussions of the time commitments and responsibilities as well as ideas on attracting the best doctors, training personnel, and establishing legacy were fascinating things I’ve never before thought about. I have no ambitions to run a hospital but still, attending conversational discussions by experienced and accomplished people was an absolute privilege.

I share this with future volunteers for one reason: Going somewhere with the intention to do good in the world will expose you to others who want to do the same. They may be further along in their path and full of insight. Often, their goals and methods will differ in valuable ways you can learn from but the important thing first is to be there. Being a fly on the wall of these discussions has altered the way I think about innovation and research. It has altered my access to people who have done impressive work and the questions I want to answer. I have been so lucky to listen.