Although the Biomedicine Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Master of Science (MSc) programs at Salus University officially started in late 2012 — recently marking the 10th anniversary — the foundation for the program was underway a few years earlier.
The brainchild of Felix Barker, OD, MS, FAAO, professor emeritus, and Anthony Di Stefano, OD ‘73, MEd, MPH, FAAO, vice president emeritus, Salus decided to develop and implement a specific PhD program and asked Pierrette Dayhaw-Barker, PhD, professor emeritus, to lead as its first director.
It was originally designed as an online program for women optometrists from Saudi Arabia. The first cohort included six Saudi women and Michael Baertschi, PhD ‘15, MSc Optom, MSc Med Education, FAAO, FEAOO (Fellow of the European Academy of Optometry and Optics).
According to Dr. Baertschi, who would go on to be the first graduate in the history of the program, he first met about entering the program with Dr. Dayhaw-Baker and professor Joseph Flammer, head of the Ophthalmology Hospital at the University of Basel in Switzerland, on Dec. 7, 2009, in Basel.
Mitchell Scheiman, OD, PhD ‘16, FAAO — the second graduate of the Salus PhD Biomedicine program and its second and current director, said the unique selling point of the University’s program, from its inception, and something that continues to this day, is that it’s not designed for the typical student graduating with a bachelor’s or master’s degree who wants to continue their education.
“Our program is designed for the mid-level, full-time academic in any health-related field,” said Dr. Scheiman. “It allows them to continue working at their job without moving their families or their spouses or having to change or give up their jobs. They can get the PhD while doing all that and it doesn’t disrupt life as much. That’s our main target and that’s the type of people we’ve been attracting.”
Dr. Baertschi, for example, said the completion of the Salus PhD program in Biomedicine not only boosted his career, but also the professional and public reputation of optometry in Switzerland as well. His thesis for his doctorate was “Factors influencing retinal venous pressure.”
The hypothesis behind it was that hypoxic conditions in general, as well as a variety of systemic and ocular diseases, are influencing the retinal blood flow and especially the arterial and the venous retinal blood pressure and therefore impair the ocular perfusion pressure. With the choice of that topic, he said an amazing scientific and adventurous journey began for him, culminating on the summit of Mount Everest, which you can read about here.
In the 10-year existence of the program, there have been 27 graduates, but since it’s a four-year program that students can complete on their own time schedule, that means those 27 have graduated in the past six years. Designed to accommodate four to six students per year, the program currently has 16 students enrolled and pursuing the doctorate degree. And, when COVID hit in early 2020, the Biomedicine program didn’t need to make a transition because it was already up and running as a robust online program. Although Dr. Scheiman believes the program was originally conceived to be optometry-centered, the Salus program is not discipline-specific now.
“What we do is we teach people how to become independent researchers in whatever field or profession they find themselves in,” he said. “Our program is very different. If you go online and look for PhD programs, there are not many like us that are online and most of the others are discipline specific.”
Another interesting aspect of the Salus program is the broad array of topical areas students research. For example, one student in California is studying cannabis; another is studying the effects of exercise on the muscles around the larynx for people having trouble swallowing; other topics include arthritis, depression, contact lens, binocular vision, concussion, breast-feeding, genetics and cancer.
In addition to Saudi Arabia — nine of the 27 graduates have been from that country — the program has expanded to include students from other countries as well, including Nigeria, Finland, Germany, Puerto Rico and the U.S. As the program enters its next decade, Dr. Scheiman said a possible name change may be in the program’s future to align more with the nature of the program. "Really what the program is, is the study of how to conduct quality research now and in the future,” said Dr. Scheiman about this potential name change.
He believes the name change would help the University provide better clarity about what the program is and what it does, which hopefully is more likely to attract candidates that the program seeks — that mid-level person who is a healthcare professional. He added that he hopes changing the name and who it attracts can grow the admissions to an average of eight students per year.
Dr. Baertschi, who is currently practicing medical research and teaching medical science to medical and non-medical individuals, calls the Biomedicine PhD program at Salus “incomparable and superior to other programs in the world.”
“The program made me personally a more reliable scientist and well-respected nationwide eye expert,” he said. “The whole program increased my knowledge, improved my personality, strengthened my self-confidence, and boosted my acceptance not only in my profession as an optometrist, but also in the field of medicine and especially in ophthalmology. The PhD program at Salus gave me knowledge, reputation, success, happiness and was a ‘door opener’ in many ways.”