by Kim O'Sullivan, ASCO director of communications 

During ASCO’s Board meeting in June, ASCO swore in a new President for the upcoming 12 months. This year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Board meeting was held remotely, and Dr. Kelly Nichols was sworn in as ASCO’s president virtually.

Dr. Kelly Nichols received her Doctor of Optometry degree from the University of California at Berkeley, completed a residency in ocular disease at Omni Eye Specialists of Colorado, and earned her MPH in biostatistics and PhD in vision science at Ohio State University. In 2014, Dr. Nichols was named Dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry and is co-director of the Ocular Surface Institute at the Clinical Eye Research Facility. Dr. Nichols has served on each of the TFOS steering committees (DEWS, DEWS II, Contact Lens Discomfort, and MGD workshops). A leading expert in dry eye disease, Dr. Nichols is or has been on the editorial boards of the journals Optometry and Vision Science, and The Ocular Surface, and is extensively published with over 105 papers.

Dr. Nichols has previous (PI) and current (Co-I) NIH NEI funding in the area of dry eye and MGD and has participated in numerous clinical trials and research studies over the last 25 years. Dr. Nichols is a board member of the research advocacy group NAEVR/AVER, and is President of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry.

Dr. Nichols chatted with ASCO’s Director of Communications, Kimberly O’Sullivan to talk about the upcoming year.

ASCO: Dr. Nichols, congratulations on being named ASCO President for fiscal year 2021-2022. Before we get into that, how are you doing during these challenging times? How are you adapting to the “new normal”? What was graduation like and how are you preparing for the upcoming academic year? It’s hard to believe we have been doing this for over a year.

Dr. Kelly Nichols: Thanks for asking. One thing we now know is that during the “new normal” change is constant. Along with all the other optometric institutions across the country, we have adapted to the ever changing times and found our way to move forward. Some of the new normal will stay – we know that faculty and staff appreciate wearing scrubs, and patients recognize optometry’s role as a health care profession when scrubs are part of the image they perceive. That will probably stay. Masking in a clinical patient setting will probably stay for a while, if not forever. One additional benefit is that masking may help during flu season and stop the spread. That will be a good thing for everyone.

We are coming off a high of graduation season. Recently we celebrated the optometry professional program and vision science graduate program classes of 2021 and 2020 completing their post graduate degrees. We recruited and look forward to welcoming our incoming first year students and we anticipate a great four years. A re-scheduled white coat ceremony was held for the Class of 2024—that feels a lot like getting back to normal.

In terms of ASCO, I look forward to the coming year as well as seeing my fellow Board of Director members in person, hopefully soon. However, during this past year, the Board has had weekly informal chats every Thursday afternoon and it’s been great seeing everyone virtually. It’s been a great support, and we have functioned so well together as a full Board. We have been sharing best practices, worries, and tips as we continue this “new normal.” I feel we are closer as a group than ever before, we enjoy each other’s company and we all look forward to seeing each other in person to give elbow bumps and hugs.

ASCO: Also, this is a bit of a fun fact and ASCO trivia. Did you know that you are the first ASCO President that was also the AOSA President?! Talk to me a little bit about this trajectory. Tell us about the AOSA.

KN:  The AOSA – American Optometric Student Association – is a long-standing fabulous organization of optometric students who represent all the schools and colleges of optometry. These student members come together to lead, advocate and be the voice of optometry students. From the trustees from all the schools, national officers are elected. I was the president way back when I was in optometry school. It was a great way to work with other students from other schools. I made life-long colleagues and friends and I was able to develop my leadership skills. I also understand that I am the only dean of an optometric institution to be past AOSA president. An unusual club of one. It’s an honor.

Even now, I really enjoy seeing the young leaders emerge from this and other national organizations. I look forward to watching their trajectory of what they can do in the future. In the past few years UABSO has had AOSA national officers, as well this past year the vice president and the president of the NOSA (National Optometric Student Association) were UAB optometry students (now alumni). I am incredibly proud of what they are doing to represent students. They are movers and shakers and are giving back in a major way.

ASCO: What are you looking forward to most as President of ASCO? What will be some of your top priorities this year?

KN: We have had a strong emphasis on the Optometry Gives Me Life campaign in the past few years and that will continue this next year and beyond. We are seeing the positive effects on application numbers, especially minority applicants. The ASCO board members, staff, and faculty that have worked so diligently on this campaign are the unsung heroes. Also, for years, ASCO has been involved in many diversity, equity and inclusion activities which have become increasingly important and more visible. That will remain a prominent focus over the next year. Collaborative efforts, like the ASCO/NOA/AAO Cultural Competency Workshop will return, hopefully on an annual basis.

For me personally, I am thankful I had great mentorship throughout my career, particularly in academic research and I’m excited to find and promote the next generation of optometry clinician-scientists, teachers and leaders. As we emerge from COVID, it would be nice to focus on the academic workforce—finding, encouraging and mentoring the next generation.  

ASCO: Before we continue, a lot has happened in our world this past year. Not just with the pandemic, but also racial injustice, Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate. What steps are you taking to improve the climate? What challenges are you dealing with being in Alabama? 

KN: In this past year, UABSO appointed the first DEI director, Dr. Keisha Elder. We have great support in the optometry school as well as in through UAB’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion. On an ongoing basis, training programs for faculty, staff and students are offered, for example our fourth-year students undergo implicit bias training before they venture off to their externships. This will continue, and is not unique to our school as many other schools are making similar appointments and programming. We have a rich but difficult history in Birmingham, and I am proud our DEI initiatives will focus on all aspects of DEI including, but not limited to, the Black community, LGBTQAI+, AAPI, and others. There is no limit to where inequities can happen. Here and with all ASCO institutions, I hope we can continue to create an environment that’s welcoming and support grass roots efforts to make substantive change over time.

ASCO:  Let’s get to know you on a personal level better. Why did you choose the career of optometry? What did your path entail getting you to the Dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, School of Optometry? What did you find most appealing about the field of optometry?

KN: I was first introduced to the profession as a career choice through the private practice I went to for glasses when I was young in Reno, Nevada. My dad suggested it to me because he was good friends with the Doctor of Optometry who owned the practice, and I was looking for a calm, medical profession. I dislike blood and needles but wanted to be in a health profession (sound familiar, anyone?). Those dislikes pushed me toward the eyes. I quickly realized people were happy coming to see their OD and leaving with better vision.

I chose optometric academia because I think it best suits my personality. I know I like multi-tasking and couldn’t see myself owning a business and “hanging my shingle” at a private practice. I was very interested in research and teaching, so academia was very appealing to me.

Following a residency at Denver Omni, I moved to Columbus, Ohio to pursue a PhD in Vision Science at Ohio State University, where I also received a master’s degree in public health and met my husband, Dr. Jason Nichols who is also an OD, MPH, PhD from Ohio State. In total we were at Ohio State for more than 15 years including training, then the University of Houston, College of Optometry for three years and now at UAB optometry for seven. I still do research with my husband Jason, and train graduate students, as well as teach Intro to Optometry in the professional program, all of which are very rewarding.

ASCO: Tell me more about University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the School of Optometry.

KN: I have been at UAB for seven years. Coincidentally, I started on the same day that Drs. Karla Zadnik and John Flanagan started at Ohio State and Berkeley optometry respectively. We are our own little June 1, 2014 cohort.

Birmingham is a lovely city with a great university, UAB. Times Higher Ed has ranked UAB the top young U.S. University twice, 12th globally. Forbes recently ranked UAB 4th as America’s Best Employer for New Graduates and 1st as America’s Best Large Employer. For the past four years, UAB has received the Insight Into Diversity HEED award, recognizing a strong commitment to DEI as a diversity champion. UAB is also a research powerhouse and in 2020 received $325M in NIH research funding, which is 12th among public universities. Many do not know these UAB facts, and the reputation of the university globally.

As for the UAB School of Optometry, we were the first School of Optometry to be part of a vibrant medical campus, the vision of Founding Dean Henry Peters. We have a great MS and PhD graduate program in vision science, for those interested in academic optometry. Due to the strength of our university, we can offer combined degree programs and certificate programs. Students can receive joint OD and a Master’s in Public Health or Master’s in Business Administration, and a business or leadership certificate for example.

We may be smaller compared to some optometry institutions, we have around 50-55 students per class. We tend to attract students regionally, although the class of 2024 represents 37 states. Most importantly, we are proud of our family environment, and our shared values. Everyone knows each other and that has been especially important during COVID. We do our best to take care of each other and focus on student and faculty wellness and mental health. It’s a real point of emphasis, especially during these stressful times.

I love how Birmingham is centrally located. You can get to the beach or the mountains, as well as other regionally fun cities within a few hours. I call it a “Goldilocks” city—not so big it’s hard to get around, or so small you don’t have amenities. It is nicknamed “Steel City” and “Magic City” because of its major growth due to steel production and as a major railroad city in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Four of the six UABSO deans have been ASCO presidents, Drs. Peters, Amos, Augsburger, and now myself—so I am honored to follow in their footsteps.

ASCO: We like to ask everyone we speak with to say something about the field of optometry that people may not know. Or what would you say to someone with the aptitude for optometry but may not know about the field.

KN:  Some of the changes due to COVID, as well as new technology have further opened doors to telehealth and medical management in optometry, emphasizing that optometry is much more than just glasses and contacts. New therapies and technology to diagnose and manage eye diseases and conditions are always in development. We are seeing expanded scope of practice in a number of states – likely with many more to follow. Often people aren’t aware of all that ODs can do, and it is our job to share that optometrists are primary eye care providers. Optometrists are on the front line in detecting many systemic diseases and are often one of the few health care providers available in rural communities, where early detection, prevention, and appropriate referral can have a big impact. I was proud to hear that many optometry students actively helped administer COVID vaccines in states across the country.

Optometry is a nice profession. ODs have a good quality of life while having a health care emphasis. We can focus on prevention. We know these traits are very attractive to the next generation. They want to care for people and make a difference. Optometrists rarely have “on call” hours; they can have a nice family life and hobbies and passions outside of work. Doctors of Optometry have the knowledge and technical ability to adapt to a changing health care environment. The academic qualifications are rigorous and challenging. Optometrists really care about patients. I’m very proud to be part of this profession.

ASCO: Please tell us a little about your life outside of the workplace. What do you like to do outside of work?

KN: This June 19th Dr. Jason Nichols and I celebrated our 22nd anniversary, and we have two boys, Brady (19 yo), who just finished his first year at the University of Utah and is an avid mountain biker, and Cullan (16 yo) who is getting ready to start senior year and is also considering universities out West. COVID confirmed we like being at home, cooking a nice meal and enjoying a fine wine, although I do look forward to being able to experience the world through international travel once that is a possibility again. I have always enjoyed the outdoors, and being immersed in the beauty of nature. These days I accomplish this through running and photography—which I fondly call photoging. For the last three years, I upload a recently-taken picture every day to Instagram/Facebook. You can follow me at KellyKNichols or #dailynaturephotokkn. Most of the photos I take are during my morning run. Over the past three years I have come to see nature differently—I have more appreciation of beauty that can be found anywhere, if you just stop to look. In addition, photoging helps me maintain my sanity, as does a good snuggle with any of our three dogs, two labradoodles Bondi and Coogee, and a French bulldog Ringo.

Thank you for your time Dr. Nichols! We look forward to having a very productive and interesting year!