The Sky is the Limit with Kelly (OD, MPH, PhD’01) and Jason (OD’99, MPH, PhD’04) Nichols

Learning more about this impressive optometry couple
Drs. Kelly and Jason Nichols on swings
The Nicholses on their 20th anniversary vacation to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador

Kelly Nichols (OD, MPH, PhD’01) is dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry, teaches and conducts clinical research in ocular surface disease, and trains graduate students. She has served on the executive board of the Tear Film and Ocular Surface Society, is a founding member of Ocular Surface Society of Optometry, and edits Ocular Surface News. Her husband, Jason J. Nichols (OD’99, MPH, PhD’04) is the senior associate vice president for research and a provost faculty fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He also actively conducts ocular surface and contact lens research and trains PhD students and fellows. He is editor of Contact Lens Spectrum and Contact Lenses Today®. Both are graduates of The Ohio State University College of Optometry and world authorities in the realm of contact lens and dry eye research.

While their accomplishments are impressive, the following conversation focuses on who they are on a personal level.

Question I know the two of you met at Ohio State, and Kelly, I know you came from the west coast to go to graduate school. What was your journey up to that point?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: I was raised in Reno, Nevada and went to undergrad at UC San Diego. I received my optometry degree at Berkeley Optometry then completed a residency at Omni Eye Specialists of Colorado. Afterward, I applied to graduate school at Berkeley. Around then I was recruited to consider Ohio State by Karla Zadnik, OD, PhD, who was taking a faculty position there. She asked if I would be interested in being her graduate student. I was thinking, well, do I want to go back to California or try something new at Ohio State? I chose Ohio State.

Question Wasn’t there a big influx of faculty from California at that time?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: Yes. In addition to Karla and me, Mark Bullimore, MCOptom, PhD and Don Mutti, OD, PhD joined the faculty. Jeff Walline (OD, MS’98, PhD’02) came to Ohio State to pursue his MS and PhD. 
Dr. Quinn: Jason, what was your path?

Dr. Jason Nichols: I grew up in the Detroit metro area: Waterford and Clarkston. From there I attended Hope College, a private liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. In 1995 I came to Ohio State, where I did my optometry and graduate work. 

Question How did you meet Kelly?

Dr. Jason Nichols: In the summer after my first year of optometry school, all the Californians started arriving at Ohio State. I worked around the college that summer painting and doing other odd jobs. I got to know them and started to learn a bit about clinical research. I saw the neat things Jeff and Kelly were able to do and I said, “I’ve got to follow that path too!” Kelly and I got to know each other then, and the rest is history!  

Question Was your first interaction doing a research project together or was that later?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: The first interaction was with Jason helping us all move into our offices. The first time we really spent much time talking was at a barbeque at Karla’s house. Then, as time went by, we saw each other around the school and would chat a bit.

Dr. Jason Nichols: One of our first dates was to The Thurman Café in German Village, opened in the 1930s. They are known for making these monster hamburgers. When Kelly and I were in Columbus in August we picked up our rental car, went to The Thurman Café, and then went to the college. (laughter)

Drs. Kelly Nichols, Jeff Walline, Karla Zadnik, David Berntsen, and Jason Nichols
Drs. Kelly Nichols, Jeff Walline, Karla Zadnik, David Berntsen, and Jason Nichols at the 2023 GPLI meeting.
Question How many years were you at Ohio State?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: For over 15 years. During that time we both earned a PhD and a Master’s in Public Health. We got married and had kids there. We have many fond memories.

Question After Ohio State you went to University of Houston, College of Optometry then to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, School of Optometry where you are now. Kelly, you are dean. Jason you are senior associate vice president for research. Jason, does

Dr. Jason Nichols: Are you referring to home or the workplace? (laughter) Actually, the VP of research reports to the president of the university, and I report to the VP of research.  

Dr. Kelly Nichols: The dean reports to the university provost.

Question You are both world authorities in dry eye research. Do you collaborate on projects or do each do your own thing?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: In the very beginning Jason did stuff that was contact lens-related, and I did stuff that was due to dry eye. As you know, those worlds overlap significantly. I tended to take on projects more related to dry eye and Meibomian gland dysfunction. When it came to clinical work, my projects were usually for companies, developing new therapeutics for dry eye. Those Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clinical trials exclude contact lens wear for the most part.

Dr. Jason Nichols: Early in our careers when we were trying to earn tenure, it was more important for us to paint a dark line between us because you don’t want people to think you’re just getting tenure because you’re riding the coattails of another person. But as time went on, we were able to be more open in our collaboration. I think to this day, typically, if we’ve got one big project or a couple of big projects, we’re both involved, but then we’ll have side projects and do our own thing. 

Question I’m going to pose a question my wife and I have heard many times. How do you manage to live and work with the same person?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: When we had our offices next door to each other, like in Houston, there really wasn’t much space. Back then we often drove our own cars to work and tried to have a little bit of separation.  Now we share a car because we want to spend more time together. We don’t see each other at all during the day. 

Question You are both so incredibly busy. How do you rejuvenate yourselves?

Dr. Jason Nichols: Both of our sons go to University of Utah and live in Salt Lake. We go there every few weeks and spend a long weekend skiing and spending time with them.

Dr. Kelly Nichols: Being outside in nature is as much a part of me as anything else. I like to do nature photography.  

Question Is there a place we can go to see some of your images?

Dr. Kelly Nichols: I post a picture every day on Instagram. It’s called #dailynaturephotokkn. I’ll share a photo I take annually; I call it liquid gold. It happens in the early part of June, at 6:30 in the morning on a clear day!

A beautiful photo of trees in golden light.
One of Dr. Kelly Nichols' photos from a Facebook/Instagram post: Liquid gold 5.0 #dailynaturephotokkn
Question Your boys were born in Columbus, but they’ve done a fair amount of moving in their lifetime. If they are sports fans, who do they follow?

Dr. Jason Nichols: They are into more non-traditional sports, like mountain biking, skiing, and snowboarding. We love it when University of Utah plays Ohio State!

Dr. Kelly Nichols: Some of our best memories are from attending the Ohio State football games with the boys when they were young. We tailgated and then go to all the band stuff. Who doesn’t love Ohio State football? 

Exactly. Go Buckeyes!

Drs. Kelly and Jason Nichols at the Galapagos Islands
The Nicholses on their 20th anniversary vacation to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador