Get to Know Nathan Lighthizer, OD, FAAO

We asked a panel of thought leaders from AOC’s editorial board to nominate five optometrists whom they consider to be “Rising Stars.” We tallied the votes and will feature these up-and-comers in every issue.

MEET THIS ISSUE'S RISING STAR: NATHAN LIGHTHIZER, OD, FAAO

Please share with us your background.

I was born and raised in Bismarck, North Dakota. I always had an interest in the medical field while growing up. My mom is an x-ray tech, and I have an uncle and a cousin who are chiropractors. I played basketball, baseball, and football in high school and was redshirted in golf in college, taking 5 years instead of the traditional 4-year period to complete my studies. My first two undergrad years were at Bismarck State, and then I transferred in-state to Jamestown College, where I met my wife Jenna who also happened to be going into optometry. After earning my Bachelor of Science in biology, I attended Pacific University College of Optometry. Upon graduation, I completed a residency in family practice optometry, with an emphasis in ocular disease, through Northeastern State University Oklahoma College of Optometry.

What drew you to optometry and, specifically, to your field of interest?

The dad of my best friend in high school was an optometrist. I liked what he did for a living and the lifestyle it allowed him. By my sophomore year in high school, I knew that optometry was the profession for me. During the summer after my first year of optometry school, I worked in ocular disease and special testing as a technician, helping third and fourth-year optometry students and faculty with ocular disease patients. I realized that I liked the medical and surgical sides of optometry; working in an environment that offered a wide scope of practice opportunities. My mentor, Blair Lonsberry, OD, recommended I pursue a residency at the Oklahoma College of Optometry. I applied for and was offered the position, and the school also extended an offer to my wife, who was just finishing her residency, to join the faculty. We’ve been here ever since.

Please describe your current position.

I am the assistant dean for clinical services and director of continuing education at the Oklahoma College of Optometry. I am also chief of specialty care clinics where all minor surgical and laser procedures, cataract evaluations, optical coherence tomography, and blepharoplasty evaluations are performed, as well as chief of the school’s electrodiagnostics clinic where all electroretinogram, multifocal electroretinogram, electrooculography, and visual evoked potential testing are performed. In 2014, I founded and now head the college’s dry eye clinic. I also lecture nationally and internationally on numerous topics, most notably advanced ophthalmic procedures, electrodiagnostics, and ocular disease.

Who are/were your mentors?

Blair Lonsberry, OD, was and remains my main mentor. During optometry school, he motivated me and helped shape my career path, while also inspiring me to conduct continuing education lectures to help educate others. I will forever be indebted to him for his guidance. I was also fortunate to be trained in ocular disease by Leo Skorin, OD, DO, during a 3-month rotation at the Mayo Clinic. Other mentors are my colleagues at the Oklahoma College of Optometry: Drs. Michelle Welch, Lee Carr, Richard Castillo, and Doug Penisten. They all helped train me during my residency and provided invaluable knowledge and clinical pearls.

What are some new technological advances that you have found particularly exciting? Which advances in the pipeline are you most enthusiastic or curious about?

With so many new advances in medicine and emerging technologies, how do you choose what to highlight? We now have new devices, amniotic membranes, to facilitate ocular surface reconstruction and promote healing. There are also visually evoked potentials and electroretinography technologies that were only being used in the research lab when I was in optometry school. Today, we are using them in practice to diagnose ocular disease conditions earlier than we could before and help improve these conditions before they worsen. Laser technology continues to progress, and new technology allows us to do lump and bump removal flawlessly. I am excited about how far our profession has come and what the future holds in store for us and our patients.

What are some of the new teaching methods that you are using today and how do they differ from methods used when you were in optometry school?

The optometric curriculum has evolved so that today’s students are receiving more exposure to the medical side of optometry. Oklahoma has the most advanced scope of practice for optometrists in the nation. Our students are managing more pre- and postoperative cataract procedures and performing more laser procedures than I was exposed to a decade ago. We are also placing a great deal of emphasis on the business side of optometry. At the Oklahoma College of Optometry, our third- and fourth-year students go through semester-long practice management courses that better prepare them for running a private practice.

What is a typical day in your life? What keeps you busy, fulfilled, and passionate?

I love my job, and I don’t see it as work because it’s something I thoroughly enjoy doing every day. Throughout the year, I have a nice balance between the time I spend with students in the classroom, seeing patients in our clinics, and performing my administrative duties.

I am really passionate about the continuing education lectures I get to conduct. I travel around the country and am energized, fulfilled, and inspired by the colleagues I get to work with and learn from.

What advice can you offer to individuals who are just now choosing their career paths after finishing optometry school?

Consider a residency: it is another year of specialized training that you will not regret. Stay involved in the profession. Join and become active in the American Optometric Association and your state and local associations. Go to meetings to see and learn. New technology can be intimidating if you haven’t been trained on it or if it requires you to develop new skills. But when you take the leap, it can be extremely rewarding.