After spending many nights and weekends in the dental lab preparing casts, fabricating custom trays, and setting denture teeth for my patients, I decided to spend a year in a different kind of lab—Dr. Toshi Kawai’s immunology lab at the Forsyth Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My decision came after my research experience in Dr. Kawai’s lab during the summer after my first year in dental school. I first met with Dr. Kawai because of my interest in the link between oral and systemic health, specifically diabetes-associated periodontal disease. I took on a project to study ghrelin, a protein found in lower levels in diabetic patients. My work that summer helped demonstrate that ghrelin exhibits anti-microbial properties by protecting other anti-microbial peptides from degradation. Therefore, the decreased ghrelin levels in diabetics might contribute to the increased incidence of periodontal disease in this population. Even more exciting is the potential for these findings to lead to novel treatments for periodontal disease in this patient population.
The science behind diabetes-associated periodontal disease became real when I began treating patients of my own. One of my patients was a 40-year-old male with uncontrolled diabetes who presented with severe periodontal disease. He needed full-mouth extractions and an immediate denture. But even this had to be postponed until his diabetes was controlled because his diabetes put him at risk for poor wound healing after the extractions. To see the complications of diabetes manifest in this way in one of my youngest patients was eye-opening.
After my fourth year in dental school, I decided to devote a year full-time to continue to study the role of ghrelin in a mouse model of type 2 diabetes-associated periodontal disease through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Medical Research Fellowship. As an HHMI research fellow, I was given a stipend for the year, an additional fund reserved to cover tuition and school fees during my research year, and another fund reserved for expense to travel to research conferences and present your work. Through this, I was able to attend ASDA’s Annual Session to present my research at the student poster competition this past March. (And won! It was my first ASDA Annual Session, and I went only after I finished my four years in dental school!)
I was interested in studying diabetes-associated periodontal disease, but I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to work with ghrelin, the particular peptide I was studying in the disease process. In the end, what I found most important to my experience was my research mentor. To tell you the truth, not having much basic science bench research experience, I was not sure if I would be able to take on the project. But Dr. Kawai, even as chair of his department, ran experiments alongside his lab members, and offered technical advice for our experiments. He and his postdocs were great teachers who made taking the leap into dental research a lot less intimidating.
Dental students have access to so many resources like the HHMI Medical Research Fellowship that financially supports a dental student who wants to try out research. During my shorter first-year research experience, I also received funding from the AADR Summer Research Fellowship. In addition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the ADA Foundation both offer research fellowships for dental students to take on projects. So to any dental students considering spending more time in research, now is the time to try it out!
Are you interested in learning more about research studies your fellow colleagues have done? Visit ASDA’s Student Research Poster Session link to read more about this year’s Annual Session presenters!
~Dr. Jane Shin, Harvard ’14