Ohio State Dental Journal

Promising New Talent: Key to Research and Teaching Innovation

New ideas, innovative approaches and interdisciplinary collaboration — these are all necessary elements of a successful research program. The challenge before Ohio State’s leadership, then, is how to bring these elements together. According to College of Dentistry Dean Patrick M. Lloyd, attracting top talent from around the globe is key.

“Keeping up with the pace of research is not enough. It is our job to set the pace, and we can only do that with the brightest minds in science today,” said Dean Lloyd. 

Division of Biosciences Chair Peter J. Reiser, PhD, agreed. “We’re also seeking talented researchers and scientists who have an interest and aptitude for teaching. Researchers must be able to take their knowledge from the laboratory bench to the classroom if we are going to effectively prepare our students to become leaders in dental practice and research.” 

The National Institutes of Health Pathways to Independence Award, also known as a K99/R00 grant, accelerates the career development of the promising researchers the College of Dentistry has recently hired. The grant, which is awarded through a competitive application process, provides five years of support in two phases: one or two years of mentored support for postdoctoral research scientists, and then up to three years of support for independent research. Typically, it can take 10 or more years after receiving a PhD for a researcher to become an independent scientist — i.e., to have his or her own lab at a university, conducting research on the areas he or she has chosen to study. 

The following faculty members are the college’s newest Pathways to Independence researchers.

Sara Palmer, PhD

Sara Palmer, PhD

“Infinite possibilities,” said Sara Palmer, PhD, when asked what drew her to microbiology research. With more than 700 species of bacteria in the human mouth, Dr. Palmer is not likely to run out of research questions to answer anytime soon. 

Dr. Palmer studies Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans), one of the etiological agents of dental caries. She is interested in how changes in habits, such as increased sugar in the diet, can disrupt the bacterial population and cause certain bacterial species to supersede others in the community by producing more acid. 

“It’s easy to become very focused on my research, but teaching helps me step back and see how my work fits into the bigger picture of dental research and education. I enjoy helping others come to appreciate the molecular knowledge that forms the basis of patient care.”

“Over time, the growth of highly acidogenic and acid tolerant species lower the plaque pH, resulting in erosion of enamel and caries development,” Dr. Palmer said. 

S. mutans first captured Dr. Palmer’s attention when she was a graduate student at the University of Florida. There she studied the function of two universally conserved protein chaperones, YidC1 and YidC2, which were shown to be essential to the ability of S. mutans to cause dental caries in rats. She also worked in a lab at the University of Florida that had sequenced 57 S. mutans genomes in collaboration with Cornell University researchers. 

“What I find particularly fascinating,” says Dr. Palmer, “is S. mutans’ ability to evolve and acquire new genes. This species is able to pick up DNA from the environment. When humans started eating carbohydrates about three to ten thousand years ago, S. mutans began to evolve or acquire new genes that allowed them to survive better in the oral cavity.”

Now, Dr. Palmer is one of the College of Dentistry’s newest microbiology researchers, and Ohio State is the perfect place to nurture her pursuit of knowledge. As a National Institutes of Health K99/R00 grant recipient, Dr. Palmer has transitioned from being a mentored postdoctoral researcher to that of an independent researcher at Ohio State. This means she selects her research projects, sets up her own lab, and hires the people who will support her work. 

Dr. Palmer is just as excited about the other significant aspect of her new position: teaching. This spring, she is slated to teach Medical Microbiology to first-year dental students, a task that aligns perfectly with her research.

“It’s easy to become very focused on my research, but teaching helps me step back and see how my work fits into the bigger picture of dental research and education. I enjoy helping others come to appreciate the molecular knowledge that forms the basis of patient care.”

Brian Foster, PhD

Brian Foster, PhD

Brian Foster, PhD, did not set out to become a dentistry researcher when he chose a career in microbiology, but he discovered his interest in oral biology while working in a dentistry research laboratory in graduate school at the University of Michigan. He joined The Ohio State University College of Dentistry faculty in 2015.

“Starting a lab is a big task,” said Dr. Foster, “but the college’s supportive environment makes that easier. There’s a culture of collaboration.” 

Today, Dr. Foster studies the molecular biology of tooth root development and mineralization, and he is particularly interested in cementum, the surface layer of the tooth root that fixes teeth to the jaw. With his own K99/R00 grant from the National Institutes of Health, he is able to engage in independent research at an earlier stage in his career than is typical of basic scientists. 

“There are so many unanswered questions about cementum. What is it, exactly? Is it unique, and if so, what makes it unique?” said Dr. Foster.

“I appreciate that moment when you can see students begin to truly understand the information. When they ask great questions and engage in discussion, you know they’re really learning.”

Foster is currently studying bone sialoprotein (BSP), which is a component of cementum. In the absence of BSP in an experimental model, cementum does not form. This has prompted him to examine BSP’s role in the potential regeneration of cementum. This research could have significant implications for patients with periodontal disease.

Although Dr. Foster has been at Ohio State for less than two years, he has already made his mark as the 2016 recipient of the college’s Stazen Junior Award for research excellence by an assistant or associate professor. He has also traveled to a symposium in Seoul, S. Korea, where he spoke about breakthroughs in postnatal tooth root and cementum formation. 

In addition to conducting research, Dr. Foster also teaches Dental Histology to first-year dental students—an activity he finds extremely rewarding.

“I appreciate that moment when you can see students begin to truly understand the information. When they ask great questions and engage in discussion, you know they’re really learning.”

It’s a responsibility that Dr. Foster takes seriously.

“The most important role in the College of Dentistry is to teach the next generation of dentists. As a researcher, I’m proud to be a part of that. And if I can plant a seed that inspires students to pursue their own research, or see something in a new way, it’s all for the better.”