Cultivating the Next Generation of Researchers

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic reflects on his own experiences as a student and looks at the ways three different schools are encouraging a new generation to engage in research.

A slight diversion: While I have you and before I address the topic of this month’s letter, I want to call your attention to exciting changes with the ADEA Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education (ADEA CCI). In 2016, the ADEA Board of Directors determined there had been immense success as a result of the Commission’s work since 2005, and it was the appropriate time to renew ADEA’s commitment to change and innovation in dental education. Therefore, I am pleased to inform you that ADEA CCI 2.0 is getting underway. I encourage you to read the guest editorial that Dr. Cecile Feldman, Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors, and I wrote explaining the idea behind ADEA CCI 2.0. The guest editorial will also appear in the March issue of the Journal of Dental Education.

On to this month’s letter: Last fall I was invited to speak about research and scholarship and their roles as engines of dentistry. The occasion was the Hinman Student Research Symposium, co-sponsored by the Atlanta-based Hinman Dental Society and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Dentistry (UTHSC COD). The college has made promoting a robust research program part of its mission, and my visit there gave me the opportunity to reflect on the experiences that propelled me to pursue an academic career.

When I applied to dental school, I was planning to return to my hometown and become a successful general dentist. As you might guess, that’s not what happened. While at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine, the school’s research requirement and my faculty mentors nudged me in a different direction. I found myself exploring Strep mutans, taking part in a table clinic program sponsored by SCADA (a joint venture between ADEA Corporate Member Dentsply Sirona and the American Dental Association), and eventually completing a pediatric dental residency at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston. By the end of that experience, I was hooked on research and had set my sights on a career in dental education. I secured a position on the faculty at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and I haven’t looked back.

Tim Hottel, D.D.S., M.S., M.B.A., Dean at UTHSC COD, also pursued research as both a predoctoral and graduate student, and appreciates the benefits of engaging in this pursuit early on. Since arriving in Memphis seven years ago, he has been encouraging both faculty and students at his institution to take the plunge.

“You never know when one of these young people will come onto something that changes the face of dentistry,” Tim told me. “But you have to introduce them to research if you want them to do it.”

Making that introduction comes fairly easily at UTHSC COD since the Hinman Student Research Symposium, now in its 23rd year, brings student researchers from dental schools across North America to Memphis every October. Tim’s success in engaging students in research also comes through another channel: the college’s faculty. Tim began encouraging them to develop projects when he first became dean, and along with Franklin Garcia-Godoy, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., his dean of research, has been successful in bringing in alumni dollars to support that effort. As a result, the college—while not a research-intensive dental school—now boasts more than 100 publications in peer-reviewed journals each year.

“This is what drives student interest,” Tim told me. “The faculty talk about their research with the students, and then the students get excited and away they go!”

Indeed, student research appears to be thriving on a number of dental school campuses that are relatively new to the research game. One of those schools is Roseman University College of Dental Medicine (Roseman CODM), founded in 1999. Perhaps best known for its mastery-learning pedagogy, this private, not-for-profit dental school is well on its way to developing a strong culture of scholarship and research. Roseman boasts an active cohort of student researchers, including a two-time winner of a prestigious SCADA student research award.

According to Roseman Dean Frank Licari, D.D.S., M.P.H., M.B.A., cultivating the next generation of dental researchers starts with the school’s holistic admissions process. Roseman has welcomed a number of candidates with Master’s and Ph.D. degrees (including the aforementioned award winner) who are interested in continuing their research while they are in dental school. “And in turn, those students serve as role models to some of our other students who have never done research,” Frank says.

All Roseman dental students have the option of taking part in research beginning in their first year. Those who show an interest are paired with faculty to get a better sense of what a research career would be like. In talking with Frank, it became clear that there’s a lot of one-on-one mentoring going on at Roseman.

“When you identify students who have that level of knowledge and ability and excitement and curiosity,” Frank says, “it’s important that we encourage them to look at academic and research careers.”

It is no secret that these can be a tough sell at many schools, but Frank says the Roseman faculty set a positive example. “Students see that people love to come here to work, that they want to be part of the college, so that encourages students to consider academic careers.”

Clark Stanford, D.D.S., Ph.D., Cert. Prosthodontics, Dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry (UIC COD), is also eager to cultivate a cohort of budding scholars. Nine years ago, Luisa DiPietro, Ph.D., D.D.S., started UIC’s Multidisciplinary Oral Science Training (MOST) Program, which provides research-training opportunities for students along the higher education continuum. (The program is currently run by Anna Bedran Russo, D.D.S., Ph.D., along with Dr. Lyndon Cooper, D.D.S., Ph.D.)

A select group of UIC COD predoctoral students participate in MOST’s joint Ph.D./D.M.D. program. This predoctoral immersion in research takes “dedicated mentors and carefully selected students, and you have to work with them intensively,” Clark says of the seven-year, dual-degree program. It also takes money. Some financing comes from National Institutes of Health T32 training grants to the college and individual fellowship awards received by the students, and the College of Dentistry also contributes by waiving tuition for students who pursue the dual degree.

“We see the program as a strategic investment in the profession,” Clark told me. “We’ve also invested in physical renovations and in recruiting talented faculty, but the dual-degree program helps to change the culture in dentistry, to break down the wall of separation between research and clinical faculty. By having a cadre of junior scientists, we bridge that gap.”

One day, Clark’s “bridge builders,” and the student researchers at Roseman CODM, UTHSC COD and elsewhere will fill the faculty ranks and even shake the world with their discoveries, but they are already serving an important function. Their deeper appreciation of the value of scientific investigation to inform clinical practice is rubbing off on their peers. Everyone I spoke with agreed that all students need to understand scientific principles in order to make sound clinical decisions, and they believe exposure to research at the predoctoral level is crucial to achieving this goal.

Ultimately, patients benefit from these activities and so does the profession. Knowledge and technology are doubling every 12 to 15 years, and that rate will only accelerate as time moves forward. To remain a learned profession and retain the trust of those we serve, we must continue to investigate the dental and craniofacial complex, develop the evidence base for what we do, and make ongoing scholarly contributions that support human health.

We are fortunate as a profession. Our understanding of the oral cavity gives us an advantage in this endeavor. Not only is the mouth a mirror of the body, it is also easily accessible from a research perspective. By studying saliva and tissues in the mouth, dental researchers can shed light on cancer, pain, infectious diseases, glandular function, genetics, biomimetics and tissue engineering, not to mention oral health and well-being.

Cultivating the next generation of researchers may be relatively easy. Researchers are persistent, curious, motivated, focused, even aggressive. They possess a raw intelligence, a love of science, and a desire to improve the status quo. They find the balance between skepticism and receptivity. They are also hard working. As Thomas Edison famously said, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Many of today’s predoctoral students possess these qualities in spades. We owe it to them—and to our profession—to nurture their interest in science and provide clear career paths that lead to scholarship and research.


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