AAOF Jill and George Mertz Fellowship

Justina Raouf Assaad, OD 

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History and Purpose

The Jill and George Mertz Fellowship is a fellowship award honoring former American Academy of Optometry Foundation President George Mertz and his wife Jill. Both passed away too soon. Jill’s estate and George’s colleagues created a substantial fund to honor their commitment to the advancement of optometry and education through innovation, education, and research.

George once stated "The training of qualified educator(s)/researchers is critical to the bright future we all want for optometry.  Those who choose academic careers in optometry have less than half the lifetime earning power of those who enter most of the various modes of optometric practice.  The few who sacrifice personal gain for the good of the profession in this way are deserving of our gratitude and support.  While the AAOF has a distinguished record of support for post-graduate optometric education through Ezell Fellowships and other programs, there is still a need to do much more."


Along with partner organizations we have identified a need to foster the next generation of optometric educators and leaders.  One aspect of this is through the development of OD clinician scientists formally educated in vision science and biomedical research PhD graduate training.  However, surveys of potential students have identified debt load and income loss as barriers. This program aims to reduce these financial burdens and incentivize optometrists to pursue graduate training through the provision of fellowships to supplement graduate student stipends.

 The Jill and George Mertz Fellowship is designed to help transition the best and brightest clinician-optometrists with exceptional potential into a career which includes research and academic optometry.  This up-to 2-year fellowship will be awarded congruent with enrollment into a vision or related biomedical science PhD program. High achieving 4th year OD students as well as applicants who are currently in/have completed a residency or currently employed as a clinician-optometrist are highly encouraged to apply. Must be completing or have completed clinical training leading to an optometry degree.  Although not required, some priority may be given to those with optometry training at a North American school/college of optometry. Individuals who have already completed some of a PhD program are not eligible.  

Awardees will receive $15,000 (US dollars) upon beginning their first year of training, and if they demonstrate sufficient success (as described within their progress report, see below) during this initial year, they will receive an additional $15,000 (US dollars) upon beginning their second year of training.  All monies will be distributed directly to the recipient.  The awardee is free to use these funds how they wish (e.g. repay their loans, supplement stipend, tuition expenses, etc.).  AAOF will issue the awardee a 1099 tax form and report the amount to the IRS. Awardees are encouraged to contact a tax consultant for further tax implications.  

Eligibility and Application

The submission will open Oct, 2022.  This is a biennial award.

The best candidate will be chosen based on what is expected to be a highly competitive applicant pool.  The applicant:

  1. Must be completing or have completed clinical training leading to an optometry degree. Although not required, some priority may be given to those with optometry training at a North American school/college of optometry.
  2. Must be planning on entering a full-time PhD-level training program at a North American institution to pursue vision science or other related biomedical sciences. Those who have already begun a graduate PhD program are not eligible. The funding is not awarded until the awardee has begun their training at the institution and obtained their OD degree.
  3. Must outline a plan to pursue a career that includes research and academic optometry, at a North American school of college of optometry.
  4. Must be focusing their research study on an innovative area of research, with an impact on clinical care.
  5. Although not required, some priority may be given to those pursuing innovation in the field of cornea, contact lenses or refractive technologies.
  6. Awardees may only receive the fellowship for up to 1 successive, 2-year period. Previous recipients of the fellowship are not eligible to apply.

Application / Submission

Applications must include the following:

  1. Official transcript from clinical training institution
  2. Either a resume/curriculum vitae (CV) or biosketch (e.g. NIH style acceptable, such as  the "non-fellowship"  NIH formatted bio sketch ).
    1. Please include information regarding any other salary, monetary awards, and/or financial or research support.
    2. Although not required, if the applicant has any previous publications, abstracts, or research experience/work, please include a listing/description of these if they are not included within the resume/CV/biosketch provided.
    3. Please include a description of all training and any teaching experience.
  3. Personal Statement (up to 200-word limit for each of the following 5 individual items; up to a 1000-word maximum for all 5 items combined) to include:
    1. Your intended program of study and intended area of research, highlighting any innovation and clinical impact of this work. Specifically, please describe any clinically meaningful questions you hope to explore.
    2. A description of why this award would enable you to pursue graduate education over other alternative paths.
    3. Your commitment and interest in optometric research and education within a school or college of optometry.
    4. Any additional academic or research training, including honors, lectures, papers, posters not already described in your resume/CV/biosketch.
    5. Your short- and long-term career goals
  4. Three letters of recommendation (1-2 page maximum) from persons qualified to comment on your character, educational qualifications, research abilities, potential, and future teaching capabilities.**Please note that a notification will be sent to the recommender with instructions on how to upload their letter once your application is submitted** 

Following award notification, but prior to the distribution of any funds to the institution, the AAOF must be provided a letter from an authorized individual (e.g. Dean, Associate Dean) at the graduate training institution (a) describing the applicant program of study (e.g. PhD in vision science), (b) confirming acceptance to the program and start date, (c) confirming the applicant has actually started the program.

If the applicant has already been awarded the first year $15,000 award and wishes to apply for the second possible year of $15,000 support, their application does not require the above materials but rather consists of:

  1. A progress report (up to 500 words) describing the activities achieved so far in the fellowship, and what is aimed during the second and final year of $15,000 funding. This report should also specifically highlight any presentations, publications, grants applied for, or grants received.

   2.    A letter from an authorized individual (e.g. Dean, Associate Dean) at the graduate training       institution (a) describing the applicant program of study (e.g. PhD in vision science), and (b) confirming   continued enrollment in the program in good-standing, including GPA.

Applications and supporting materials must be uploaded via our online submission system . 

All submissions will receive a confirmation email within 3 business days of receipt. The applicant will receive an additional message only if the application is incomplete.

Review Procedures

All grant/award submissions are initially reviewed for completeness and eligibility by AAO/AAOF staff.  Staff will work to notify applicants of eligibility and incompleteness prior to the application deadline to the extent feasible.  Complete, eligible applications are then sent to a reviewing body chosen by the organization.  Each reviewing body is specifically chosen so as to allow the most knowledgeable merit review of the application.  This reviewing body sends its recommendations to the Programs Advisory Committee (PAC) who uses the reviewing body recommendations to select the final awardees in alignment with programmatic needs and corresponding gift agreements.  The decision of the PAC is then sent to the AAOF Board for review and approval.  The AAO/AAOF Conflict of Interest policy governs the actions of individuals involved throughout this review and approval process.

Program Notes

Please note: Prior to window open, changes may occur to the criteria and guidelines for submission to this program.  Applicants are strongly encouraged to visit this program page during the open window to ensure they receive all details needed to apply.

In accepting a fellowship, the recipient agrees to:

  • Comply with all programmatic requests
  • Notify AAOF of changes in recipient's ability to complete the fellowship, contact information, or institution changes.
  • Acknowledge the AAOF in written and oral presentations (articles, abstracts, or research conducted) as a result of the fellowship.
  • Attend the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Optometry including the AAOF Celebration Luncheon during the award period to receive the award in person.
  • If requested, provide a minimum of 2 hours of help at the AAOF/AAO Booth at the AAO annual meeting.
  • To allow the AAOF/AAO to publish their name, image, institution information, and any statement or quote provided by the recipient. These may appear in a variety of media formats that will announce and promote the program including, but not limited to, the annual reports, website, and any promotional materials.
  • Submit a one-page progress report at the end of the award year. This progress report should specifically highlight any presentations, publications, grants applied for, or grants received.
  • Awardees are strongly encouraged to:
    • Submit research work associated with the fellowship to the Academy Scientific Program for consideration in the year of application submission and award.
    • Submit research work for consideration of publication (if accepted upon peer-review) to Optometry and Vision Science

For further information, contact:
Jennifer Rubin, Awards and Student Membership Engagement Manager
American Academy of Optometry



 In 2020, the Mertz Fellowship began providing funds to encourage talented clinicians to enter   further   graduate training in research.

2021:  Justina Raouf Assaad, OD
           Primary Care Resident
           University of Houston College of Optometry
 From 2013-2018 the biennial Mertz Fellowship aimed to foster international research   collaboration.

2018:  Vinh D. Vu, OD
            Hanoi Medical Center, Vietnam
            Brien Holden Institute

2016:  Pauline Kang, PhD, FAAO
            University of New South Wales
            School of Optometry and Vision Science

2013:   Joel de Melo Bambamba
            Universidade Lurio, Mozambique Fellowship
            Inter-American University of Puerto Rico School of Optometry

Photo Credit: National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health (NEI/NIH)

Jill and George Mertz
Jill and George Mertz