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Jason J. Nichols headshot.

Senior Associate Vice President for Research

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AB 714 and HPB 502

(205) 975-3497

Teaching/research interests: Anterior segment, cornea, contact lenses, dry eye disease, meibomian gland disease

Office hours: By appointment


  • OD, Ohio State University, Optometry
  • MPH, Ohio State University, Epidemiology
  • PhD, Ohio State University, Vision Science

Jason J. Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, FAAO, is the Senior Associate Vice President for Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He also actively conducts ocular surface and contact lens research and trains PhD students and Fellows. Prior to his current position, Dr. Nichols was the Kevin McDaid Vision Source Professor (with tenure) at the University of Houston College of Optometry between 2011 and 2014, and an Associate Professor (with tenure) at The Ohio State University College of Optometry from 2004-2011. While at University of Houston, he co-founded The Ocular Surface Institute (TOSI) and was its Chief Operating Officer; TOSI had a team of 20 scientists, project managers, faculty and graduate students dedicated in translational ocular surface based research. Dr. Nichols received his undergraduate degree at Hope College (BA, biology), and Doctor of Optometry, Master’s in Public Health (epidemiology) and PhD (vision science) all from the Ohio State University.

Dr. Nichols has received research funding from the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health to study dry eye diseases including meibomian gland disease, dry eye and contact lens-related dry eye. He currently receives R01 funding (NIH/NEI EY026947) to study the structural and functional changes in the tear film associated with meibum composition changes in meibomian gland dysfunction. He has also received funding from the American Optometric Foundation, in addition to a variety of industrial partners in excess of $10 million as Principal Investigator, and $100 million as Co-Investigator. He writes and lectures extensively on contact lenses and ocular surface conditions such as dry eye and meibomian gland disease. He has authored over 150 peer-reviewed manuscripts, over 200 clinical manuscripts, over 200 abstracts, and has given over 200 lectures worldwide on these topics.

Dr. Nichols is currently Editor of Contact Lens Spectrum and Contact Lenses Today®, whose publications reach over 50,000 eyecare practitioners worldwide. Dr. Nichols also serves as an Associate Editor for Eye and Contact Lens and is on the editorial board of The Ocular Surface. Dr. Nichols is a dual diplomate in both the American Academy of Optometry’s (AAO) sections of Public Health and Environmental Optometry and Cornea, Contact Lenses, and Refractive Technology. He has also the Chaired of the AAO’s Research Committee and is a prior member of the Board of Directors of the American Optometric Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the American Academy of Optometry. He also Chaired of the Tear Film and Ocular Surface (TFOS) Society’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Board, and the TFOS International Workshop on Contact Lens Discomfort (2013). He is currently on the Board of Directors for the Sjogren’s Foundation. His awards include three Ezell Fellowships, the Borish Award from the American Academy of Optometry, the Legends Award of the Contact Lens and Cornea Section of the AOA, and Distinguished Scholar and Fellow of the National Academies of Practice. In 2016, Dr. Nichols was honored as one of Contact Lens Spectrum’s top 30 most influential in the field of contact lenses over the last 30 years.

Research interests:

1. Development of novel technologies to understand tear film structure and function

Understanding the in vivo human tear film in terms of its structure and function has been an on-going area of interest for the dry eye community for many years. As noted through many years of study, including a significant emphasis in my laboratory, typical clinical measures of the tear film such as the Schirmer's test or measures of tear film breakup time, are not sensitive to the symptoms that patients report. Thus, our laboratory and collaborators have developed several non-invasive optical systems that are able to measure the tear film in much more objective, quantitative and accurate ways. We have developed interferometric systems that are capable of measuring the thickness of the tear film to a resolution of less than one micron, while also having the temporal capacity to measure the decay and instability of the film during the interblink cycle. Furthermore, I have also collaborated in developing optically based imaging systems that are able to image the precorneal tear film in vivo, in addition to the lipid layer. These imaging systems, while less quantitative, are a supplemental approach that allow for the determination of structural assembly of these respective films in vivo. These novel systems have been adapted to study the structure and function of the tear film in health and various ocular surface diseases such as dry eye conditions.

2. Key contributions to understanding the in-vivo structure and functions of the tear film

As noted above, I and my colleagues have developed novel non-invasive methods to target the in vivo study of the structure and function of the tear film in health and disease. There have been several key findings that have moved the field forward. First, historical methods of measuring tear film instability such as evaporimeters have underestimated the true rate of decay of the tear film. The reason is primarily due to the fact that these systems used closed chambers that resist normal airflow currents. Our work using our open chamber systems shows that the tear film thins at a rate of about 3 microns/minute, which is rapid enough to double osmolarity of the blink during the interblink interval. If the normal osmolarity of the tear film is approximately 300 mOsmol, this could theoretically drive the PRECORNEAL tear film osmolarity to upwards of 600 mOsmol (although at present, this cannot be measured during the interblink period). This is critically important because the corneal nociceptors thought to drive neurobiological sensations about dry eye symptoms are thought to be primarily stimulated by hyperosmolar conditions. A second major contribution related to tear film structure and function is that the primary mechanism of tear film disruptions is evaporation, rather than other possible mechanisms such as tangential flow, gravitational forces, or permeability factors on the ocular surface. The finding that evaporation is the primary mechanism for tear film rupture corresponds with the concept and need for having a stable and intact lipid layer of the tear film, with all the proper components including anti-evaporative wax esters in addition to more polar molecules such as the OAHFAs that help spread the non-polar lipids over the aqueous film.

3. Development of functional understanding of human tear film lipid layer in vivo

It has long been thought that the primary function of the human lipid layer in vivo is to retard evaporation of the aqueous component of the tear film. However, as with the development of a biochemical component of the meibum and tear film has advanced with contemporary analytical techniques, so too has our understanding about this functional role of the lipid layer. We have shown in humans that the lipid layer is a much stronger anti-evaporative barrier than was originally reported. My studies have also shown that even slight disruption in the physical structure of the lipid layer causes dramatic alterations in its functional properties. The question that remains, and is addressed by the proposed studies, is what is the critical lipid class and or species that leads to the physical disruption of the lipid layer and altered function. The aims of these studies are to provide further evidence for the critical role of the OAHFAs in maintaining a structured lipid layer, in addition to allowing the lipid layer to function as an anti-evaporative barrier.

Select publications:

  • Nichols JJ, Mitchell GL, King-Smith PE. Thinning rate of the precorneal and prelens tear films. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2005 Jul;46(7):2353-61. PubMed PMID: 15980222.
  • King-Smith PE, Fink BA, Nichols JJ, Nichols KK, Hill RM. Interferometric imaging of the full thickness of the precorneal tear film. J Opt Soc Am A Opt Image Sci Vis. 2006 Sep;23(9):2097-104. PubMed PMID: 16912736.
  • King-Smith PE, Nichols JJ, Braun RJ, Nichols KK. High resolution microscopy of the lipid layer of the tear film. Ocul Surf. 2011 Oct;9(4):197-211. PubMed PMID: 22023815; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4313928.
  • Nichols JJ, King-Smith PE, Hinel EA, Thangavelu M, Nichols KK. The use of fluorescent quenching in studying the contribution of evaporation to tear thinning. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2012 Aug 20;53(9):5426-32. PubMed PMID: 22789918; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3423665.
  • Nichols JJ, Mitchell GL, King-Smith PE. Thinning rate of the precorneal and prelens tear films. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2005 Jul;46(7):2353-61. PubMed PMID: 15980222.
  • King-Smith PE, Reuter KS, Braun RJ, Nichols JJ, Nichols KK. Tear film breakup and structure studied by simultaneous video recording of fluorescence and tear film lipid layer images. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2013 Jul 22;54(7):4900-9. PubMed PMID: 23766476; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3720150.
  • King-Smith PE, Ramamoorthy P, Braun RJ, Nichols JJ. Tear film images and breakup analyzed using fluorescent quenching. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2013 Sep 5;54(9):6003-11. PubMed PMID: 23920365; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3771556.
  • King-Smith PE, Hinel EA, Nichols JJ. Application of a novel interferometric method to investigate the relation between lipid layer thickness and tear film thinning. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2010 May;51(5):2418-23. PubMed PMID: 20019370; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3259007.
  • Kimball SH, King-Smith PE, Nichols JJ. Evidence for the major contribution of evaporation to tear film thinning between blinks. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2010 Dec;51(12):6294-7. PubMed PMID: 20688724; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3055755.
  • King-Smith PE, Nichols JJ, Braun RJ, Nichols KK. High resolution microscopy of the lipid layer of the tear film. Ocul Surf. 2011 Oct;9(4):197-211. PubMed PMID: 22023815; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4313928.

Academic distinctions and professional societies:  

2003 Diplomate (Cornea and Contact Lenses; Public Health), American Academy of Optometry
2008 Editor in Chief, Contact Lens Spectrum
2009 - 2016 Chair and Member, Research Committee (American Academy of Optometry)
2009 - 2009 Member, Member, NIH/NEI ZRG1 ETTN-A (58) R Challenge Grants Panel
2009 - 2009 Member, NIH/NEI ZRG1 BDCN-F(12) B Visual System Small Business Panel
2009 - 2013 Chair Medical and Scientific Advisory Council, TFOS
2011 - 2013 Member-Epidemiology Subcommittee, TFOS MGD Workshop
2012 - 2013 Chair of Steering Committee, TFOS Contact Lens Discomfort Workshop
2013 - Associate Editor, Eye and Contact Lens
2013 - 2016 Board Member, American Optometric Foundation Board of Directors
2014 - 15 Executive Committee, UAB Clinical Trials Administrative Office (NIH/NCATS U54)
2015 - 17 Steering Committee Member, TFOS Dry Eye Workshop 2.0
2015 - 17 Chair-Subcommittee on Pain and Sensation, TFOS Dry Eye Workshop 2.0
2016 - Executive Committee, UAB Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS; NCATS NCATS UL1 TR001417)
2017 - Member, UAB Clinical Trials Administrative Committee
2017 - Member, UAB President’s Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship
2017 - 18 Member, Nominating Committee, American Academy of Optometry
2018 - Chair, UAB Entrepreneurial Development and Oversight Committees
2018 - Chair, UAB Entrepreneurial Oversight Committee
2019 Member, Search Committee for UAB Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
2019 Member, Search Committee for UAB Institutional Research Integrity Officer
2019 Member, UAB Search Committee for Clinical Trials Administrative Office Medical Director
2019 - Member, UAB Institutional Conflict of Interest Committee
2020 Co-Chair, UAB O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Task Force
2020 Co-Chair, UAB Office of Research, COVID-19 Resumption of Research Task Force

Clinical specialties/areas of expertise:

  • Cornea and contact lenses
  • Dry eye and meibomian gland dysfunction