Before dental school, I had zero research experience. I majored in Molecular Biology and Microbiology at the University of Central Florida. Later, I completed a Master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences at Barry University. Sure, both my degrees flirted heavily with the basic sciences. Yet I never found the right opportunity to experience research in the real working world, a feat that ranked as a top (ok, medium) priority on my ever-growing to do list. Luckily, after enrolling in the University of Florida College of Dentistry, I was introduced to an avenue that would get me involved with research more than I ever thought possible: the Summer Research Program.
The Summer Research Program is a 10-week long program designed for incoming first year dental students at the University of Florida interested in research. The program pairs each accepted dental student with a research faculty member, who will then present the student with a project to be completed throughout the summer prior to matriculation. I initially saw this program as the perfect opportunity to explore what research entailed. It also gave me a chance to spend the summer getting to know my new home for the next four years. For me, this program was a true “two birds, one stone” kind of situation. I was accepted into the program and paired with my mentor, Dr. Marcelle Nasciemento, an assistant professor in the department of Restorative Dental Sciences at UFCD and leading researcher in the field of cariology.
Diving blindly into the major leagues of dental research seemed like a daunting task. However, my concerns were quickly diminished when I realized how involved Dr. Nascimento and her research team would be as mentors. With an understanding that hard work and quality data was expected on my end of the deal, my mentors seized the opportunity to mold and train me in the art of conducting research efficiently. Picture, for instance, any of the training montages from Rocky or more accurately that training camp scene from Mulan, and that was my summer.
My summer project was the 12 months visit of Dr. Nascimento’s ongoing translational study. It explored the arginolytic potential of plaque populations of children over time (poster pictured above). Alkali production by oral bacteria via arginine metabolism increases the local pH, which can neutralize the effects of acidification from sugar metabolism and reduce the cariogenicity of oral biofilms. The potential for oral alkali production to prevent caries has been supported by compelling evidence from in vitro studies and indirect clinical observations and continues to be a large area of focus of Dr. Nascimento’s research efforts. This ambitious and exciting project not only introduced me to new subject material that I would learn as a D1, but it gave me the chance to experience clinical research as well as basic science research. At the end of program, my portion of the study concluded with promising data that suggests arginine metabolism, via ADS, may be an important risk assessment criterion and that enhancement of ammonia production via arginine could be an effective caries intervention strategy for at-risk children. I enjoyed working on this project and was fortunate to present my findings as a poster presentation at the 2015 IADR/AADR conference in Boston, where my abstract was honored with two travel awards: 2015 AADR Bloc Travel Grant Award and 2015 IADR Colgate Research in Prevention Travel Award.
As a first time researcher, I was blown away by the progress I made in just one summer, thanks to Dr. Nascimento’s mentorship and the support of the UFCD research community. I became eager to further explore what else the world of dental research had to offer. Thus, when approached by my mentor to continue research with her on a new project, I jumped at the opportunity.
This innovative project consists of fabricating an arginine-based dental adhesive that would create a neutral environmental pH that would be less favorable to the growth of caries pathogens, thus reducing the risk for caries at the tooth-composite interface. Excited by the prospects of this study, I submitted this research proposal for the 2015 Dr. Ray Bowen Student Research Award and was selected to receive this prestigious award! This award would provide me with the necessary funding to carry out this research effort as well as cover expenses to present my findings at the 2016 Academy of Operative Dentistry scientific session in Chicago.
I recently started working on this research project at the University of Florida College of Dentistry as a co-principle investigator while simultaneously continuing my education as a full time dental student. My mentors, Dr. Marcelle Nascimento, Dr. Saulo Geraldeli and Dr. Eveline Soares, and I have divided the project into three specific aims that I intend to complete throughout the course of this summer semester. The three aims of the study include: synthesis of the arginine-based bonding agent, evaluation of the bonding agent properties and controlled release and recharge of arginine, and assessment of the anti-caries activity of the arginine-based bonding agent.
Although, I am certain that balancing this study alongside a full course load of dental school will prove to be very challenging, I optimistically accept the challenge as past experiences have taught me that with hard work, excellent mentorship and a good attitude all things are possible.
Some quick advice to any incoming D1 or any current dental student interested in research: TAKE THE PLUNGE! There are so many different types of research opportunities out there that are waiting just for you. I have found that the keys to a successful and rewarding research experience are focusing on an area of research that you are passionate about and finding a compatible, like-minded mentor that you can work with. Approaching your favorite professor after class or visiting your school’s office of research and asking for a list of available mentors are great first steps to finding your ideal mentor. When meeting with a potential mentor, it is important to share with them your level of experience, your interests and desired expectations for research, and your limitations such as school schedule, family-life, etc. Be honest with them and listen to their feedback. It’s important for your future mentor to understand where you are coming from so he or she can better guide you towards fulfilling your professional goals.
Over the past year, I’ve realized that saying “yes” to research (and often figuring out the details later) continues to open doors for me that I never knew existed. In this innovative and exciting era of dentistry, dental research continues to serve as the foundation of our profession and getting involved at that ground level is much easier than you think!
~Andres Alvarez, Florida ’18