Professor Jennifer Craig is an academic optometrist, researcher and BCLA Fellow. She is passionate about improving care for patients with ocular surface discomfort. Just recently, she was recognised as one of the top 60 optometric researchers in the world.
Based in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Auckland, Professor Craig has published hundreds of papers with a focus on dry eye disease and meibomian gland dysfunction.
Read on to learn more about Professor Craig and her research findings.
Hi Professor Craig. Tell us a bit about your work and the impact it has.
I’m a therapeutic optometrist and professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Auckland where I work in the area of ocular surface disease. Most specifically my research focuses on dry eye disease and tear film dysfunction, and I lead a research team that undertakes studies that explore the epidemiology, pathophysiology, diagnosis and management of dry eye disease and meibomian gland dysfunction with the aim of improving quality of life for affected individuals.
What inspired you to get into this area of optometry?
I’ve was inspired to commence work in this area during my PhD at Glasgow Caledonian University under the supervision of Professor Alan Tomlinson in the early 1990s. Increasingly it’s become acknowledged how impactful dry eye disease can be for patients and the benefits that can be achieved by taking an individualized approach to understanding and managing ocular surface health.
Which of your attributes contribute to success in work?
Curiosity and persistence, probably. I still haven’t answered all the research questions I have, so the desire to understand the condition better, to help resolve issues experienced by very many patients has kept me interested and focused in this area over many years.
What excites you about your work, and what keeps you motivated?
Research most often generates more questions than it answers and this drives us to try to solve the next question and the next question. We see influences from our lifestyles that impact dry eye development and the concern that it’s being more commonly seen in younger and younger individuals, are key drivers for me, personally, in continuing this work.
I’m fortunate to have a fabulous enthusiastic team of researchers, predominantly clinician scientists like me, who share my passion for improving quality of life for patients through evidence-based research. Day-to-day motivation for me arises from the enquiring and challenging minds of my students, along with brainstorming opportunities with colleagues and collaborators around the world.
Which of your many professional achievements are you most proud of?
I’m incredibly proud of having contributed to the work of TFOS, and of our evidence-based findings that have supported some of the recommendations of these consensus works. I’ve had the honour of participating in five TFOS global workshops in varying roles including as vice-chair and chair of two workshops. I was also very proud to be awarded Life Fellowship of the College of Optometrists (UK) in 2018 in recognition of my services to education of the profession.
Can you tell us a bit about you deem your most significant research finding?
A critical early finding arising from in vivo work highlighted the importance of the lipid layer in stabilizing the tear film and inhibiting tear film evaporation. Until that time much of the focus in dry eye had been on aqueous deficiency and on attempting to resolve dry eye using aqueous supplements. Appreciating the contribution of the eyelids and meibomian glands to the development and propagation of dry eye has made fundamental changes to the way we approach dry eye disease management and has driven much of our subsequent research on the meibomian glands.
More recently we’ve been intrigued to build upon the current understanding in terms of the impact of the blinking mechanism and the risks associated with incomplete blinking in dry eye development, particularly noting ethnic differences and the impact of the now ubiquitous digital environment.
What are the biggest hurdles you’ve faced in your career?
I feel I’ve been very fortunate, on the whole, with many more good experiences than hurdles to overcome, but certainly, academia isn’t for the faint-hearted, requiring a constant high level of motivation, and application, often in a fiscally challenging environment.
Electing to combine an academic career with family responsibilities presented some challenges and it’s reassuring to see advances having been made in this respect, with universities providing greater support of early-mid career researchers with caring responsibilities, when returning to work after a career break.
Of course, COVID was a challenge for me as it was for so many others across the world, keeping our translational research progressing while supporting (financially and pastorally) post-doctoral staff and numerous postgraduate students and their research projects in a situation where site access was severely limited over an extended period.
Who are your female role models and how have they influenced your career?
I think interactions with almost every female I’ve encountered in a professional setting, both senior to me and junior to me, has helped shape my career. Notable female influencers in my personal career decisions, amongst many, would include Miss Liz McClure, who was principal optometrist at Glasgow Eye Infirmary, Professor Helen Danesh-Meyer in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Auckland, Ms Lesley Frederickson of the New Zealand Association of Optometrists and Professor Fiona Stapleton of UNSW Sydney, Australia.
What’s next? Can you share about any new research you’re working on right now?
In the Ocular Surface Laboratory, at the University of Auckland we are continuing to explore improved methods of managing dry eye which requires us to understand its development and relevant risk factors, to optimise detection of the disease, as well as developing and testing novel therapies to ensure clinical management recommendations are backed by sound scientific evidence. I continue to be fascinated by the role of the eyelids in dry eye disease development and strategies that might help mitigate the effects of this debilitating condition that affects so many people across the world.