Author: Jennifer

Two UConn Faculty Named AAAS Fellows

Originally posted on Christine Buckley – College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Kim Krieger – UConn Communications

Nora Berrah, professor of physics, is one of two UConn female faculty members named as 2018 Fellows of the world’s largest general scientific society (Photo courtesy of Nora Berrah)

Two UConn faculty members, Professor Nora Berrah of the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Susan Reisine, professor emerita of the School of Dental Medicine at UConn Health, have been named 2018 Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The 412 AAAS Fellows selected this year were chosen for their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science and its applications.

The AAAS, publisher of the journal Science, is the world’s largest general scientific society. New Fellows will be recognized during a ceremony at the society’s February 2019 annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Berrah, who was head of the physics department from 2014-2018, has been recognized for her distinguished contributions to the field of molecular dynamics, particularly for pioneering non-linear science using X-ray lasers and spectroscopy using synchrotron light sources.

Using big lasers – like the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) at SLAC National Laboratory on the campus of Stanford University, the most powerful X-ray laser in the world – Berrah’s research explores transformational changes occurring inside molecules when exposed to ultra-intense beams of light. In particular, they investigate physical molecular processes that occur at the femtosecond time scale: one quadrillionth, or one millionth of one billionth, of a second.

In some of her research, Berrah and her colleagues study thymine, a component of DNA that has an ultrafast self-protection mechanism to guard skin from sunburn. Using ultrafast table-top laser light, they excite the molecule and then probe its decay mechanism with femtosecond X-rays from the LCLS, allowing the team to measure directly the time scale of thymine’s natural sunscreen-like properties.

Berrah has also been a vocal proponent of women and underrepresented groups in physics, and in addition to her scientific talks is a frequent invited speaker at conferences on women in science around the world.

Berrah is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and the recipient of the APS’s 2014 Davisson-Germer Prize in Atomic or Surface Physics.

Susan Reisine, professor emerita of the School of Dental Medicine at UConn Health. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)
Susan Reisine, professor emerita of the School of
Dental Medicine at UConn Health. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)

Reisine, the division chair of Behavioral Sciences and Community Health in the Department of Oral Health and Diagnostic Sciences from 2005 to 2014 and associate dean of research for the School of Dental Medicine from 2004 to 2014, has been recognized for her distinguished contributions to the field of psychosocial outcomes of oral disease, specifically on social functioning, quality of life and behavioral issues, and health disparities.

Her research into arthritis, fibromyalgia, and the social and psychological impacts of oral disease is unusually interdisciplinary, focusing on how these conditions affect the health of women and groups with limited access to dental care. She spearheaded the UConn Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health in 2000 and at the time was the only center of its kind in the nation at a dental school. The center trained nine scientists between 2000 and 2006 who went on to start their own independent research programs in women’s health.

Reisine’s current work looks at oral hygiene interventions with seniors in low-income housing. She and her collaborators are working with seniors who reside in Hartford, using motivational interviews to shed light on oral health-related quality of life.

Reisine is a past fellow of the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals. She has been honored twice by the International Association for Dental Research, once in 2005 with the Distinguished Scientist Award and again in 2018 with the Distinguished Service Award. And UConn Health awarded her the Board of Directors Faculty Recognition Award in 2004 for outstanding academic and clinical accomplishments, and sustained excellence of the highest order in her professional endeavors.


Congressional Visit to UConn School of Dental Medicine

Originally Posted on October 25, 2018

Rep. Joe Courtney with UConn ASDA members (from left) Cameron Christiansen, Shiyuan Mao, Marina Zoghbi, Taleen Kalajian, Jessica Rudman, Mariamma Chaluparambil, and Eric Ress at a visit to the UConn School of Dental Medicine. (Photo by Andrea Keilty)

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney recently came to UConn Health to meet with UConn dental student members of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA).

“He came to meet with us as ASDA aims to discuss legislative issues that pertain to us as current students and future health care providers,” says Taleen Kalajian, a second-year dental student and UConn ASDA delegate. “We wanted to gain insight into what is currently being done at the Congressional level in order to pass different bills and raise awareness about current issues that have the potential to impact our education and future.”

Dental student Jessica Rudman addresses Rep. Joe Courtney during the congressman’s visit to the UConn School of Dental Medicine. (Photo by Taijah Anderson)

Chief among those issues is student debt. By some estimates the average American dental student graduates with nearly $300,000 in debt. Courtney, a senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, discussed the Aim Higher Act, which his committee introduced in July. It’s a reauthorization of previous legislation that would provide students with a chance to earn a debt-free degree.

“One pillar of the Aim Higher Act is to protect and expand public service loan forgiveness programs,” says classmate Marina Zoghbi, a UConn ASDA legislative co-chair. “The Aim Higher Act also allows students to refinance high-interest loans to lower rates. I really appreciated that he is committed to advocating for students pursuing higher education.”

The congressman held a roundtable with seven members of UConn’s ASDA chapter: Zoghbi, Kalajian, Jessica Rudman, Mariamma Chaluparamabil, Eric Ress, Shiyuan Mao, and Cameron Christiansen. They met for about 30 minutes in the dental admissions office following a tour of the renovated dental care center and the simulation lab Oct. 18. Other topics of discussion included access to care and the opioid epidemic.

Chaluparamabil, the chapter’s president, and Rudman, a legislative delegate, had invited Courtney to visit during an ADA lobbying engagement in Washington, D.C., in the spring. Because of scheduling conflicts, it took several months to orchestrate.

“He’s very down-to-earth, really listens to problems, and you really feel like he’s listening to you,” Rudman says. “It can be nerve-wracking when you’re meeting someone like this, but he makes you feel at ease and able to talk about the issues that are important to you. It really helped us be comfortable.”

Growing the Biomedical Research Workforce

Now in its fourth decade of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology Training Program at the UConn School of Dental Medicine continues a rich tradition of producing researchers with a strong basic science background.

At the program’s annual symposium this week, 16 scientists-in-training shared their findings through oral or poster presentations. They include Ph.D. candidates, DMD/Ph.D. combined degree candidates, and postdoctoral fellows.

UConn’s is one of 13 dental schools in the United States with a research-focused training grant supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), part of the NIH.

“Our program is unique in that we’re very strong in basic science,” says Jon Goldberg, professor of biomedical engineering, who co-directs the program with Dr. Mina Mina, chair of the Division of Pediatric Dentistry. “Part of our objective is to create a pipeline to develop future researchers.”

It’s a multidisciplinary program with mentors from beyond the dental school, including the UConn School of Medicine, the Graduate School, and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

In her first symposium as dental dean, Dr. Sharon Gordon told the trainees they’re following in some very successful footsteps, noting that alumni hold positions of leadership across the country.

“The longstanding support of this program by the NIDCR speaks to the vision of integrating research and research training into the dental education program,” Gordon says.

Fifth-year DMD/Ph.D. candidate Michelle Spoto received the William B. Upholt Student Achievement Award in recognition of her scientific achievements and progress, and extracurricular involvement. Upholt, who died in 2016, was the training grant’s co-director for the first 25 years, before turning the program over to Mina. This is the first year of the award in his name.

“I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things about Dr. Upholt, both on the scientific side and on the side of public policy and political activism,” Spoto says. “It really is an honor to be recognized as a well-rounded individual rather than as someone who’s ‘just doing science’ day in and day out, but as a whole person too, which I think the award embodies.”

“Everything she’s learning can be applied to the mouth, be it gums, dental decay,” Goldberg says. “She’ll have the research training to better understand what she’s seeing as a dentist. And her training at Jackson is world class.”

Spoto’s mentor is Julia Oh, assistant professor of genetics and genome sciences and microbiome researcher at JAX.

“Michelle is exceptionally qualified and well-rounded,” Oh says. “She has proved herself outstanding in many areas – academically, as an educator, as a mentor, and certainly as a scientist. I’m so pleased and proud that her achievements can be formally recognized.”

Oh was the symposium’s keynote speaker, also presenting on the human microbiome, likening its ecological complexity to that of a rain forest populated by “incredibly versatile” organisms.

The world of research training grants is a very competitive one, not only for the funding itself, but also for attracting the brightest scientific minds. UConn’s grant (NIDCR T90 DE021989) is up for renewal in 2021. Leadership will use feedback from an oversight advisory committee to identify opportunities to further strengthen the program.

The advisory committee, which attended the symposium, includes Dr. Mark Herzberg, director of the University of Minnesota Craniofacial Research Program, and Dr. Paul Krebsbach, dean of the UCLA School of Dentistry.

Kresbsbach is a graduate of the program he’s now evaluating. He was at UConn Health in the mid 80s for both a Ph.D. and a residency in periodontology. Before that he graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, where he was one of Herzberg’s students. Both have directed similar programs at other institutions.

“We had an incredible cohort of young clinician-scientists-in-training who challenged each other and had fun together,” Krebsbach recalls of his time at UConn. “I think that UConn has maintained a strong research and research training tradition. UConn is one of the unfortunately somewhat small number of really research-oriented schools of dentistry that maintain the necessary tradition of understanding that ours is a learned profession based on a foundation of science.”

A more recent graduate of the Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology Training Program is Dr. Jessica Costa, who now is on the UConn Health faculty as an assistant research professor in the Center for Molecular Oncology.

“Really what makes this program so competitive in attracting both grants and trainees is the environment that fosters the complete education of dental students,” says Costa, who completed the combined DMD/Ph.D. program in 2009. “I think it’s really important for basic science researchers to be informed in their questions by real clinical problems. It’s important to get the big picture.”

One example of how the program has adapted to scientific advances is in the area of bone biology. Goldberg says this area of study has evolved to include tissue regeneration and tissue engineering. There’s also a greater focus on mathematical modeling.

“Part of our job is to say, ‘What skills are these kids going to need 20 years from now,’” Goldberg says.

For Spoto, who’s more than halfway through the program, 20 years from now ideally would be well into her tenure on the faculty of a large dental school.

“Being part of this program, we can be prepared to independently research questions in dental medicine and oral biology and craniofacial biology, and even though our projects aren’t necessarily dental related, it gives us the skill set to have those careers in the future,” she says.

Spoto is one of only six DMD/Ph.D. candidates at UConn. Another is Emma Wentworth, who’s in her second year in the program.

“It’s a very exclusive program, it’s very hard to get into, their expectations for us are very high, and I think that’s a very reasonable thing because it helps prepare us for what is ahead,” Wentworth says. “It makes us all very close, and we’re definitely willing to exchange advice with other people, and they’re always willing to take the time to personalize either your program or take the time to talk to you about who they think would be the best mentor for you.”

Her presentation at the symposium was on her study of bacteria in the mouth and their potential impact on oral mucositis, a painful condition common in cancer patients in which mouth sores can increase infection risk and hinder the ability to eat.

“This research training program is a jewel in the crown of UConn; not just in the School of Dental Medicine or UConn Health, but across the university,” Gordon says.

Dental Dean’s Lasting Legacy

While Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil will be completing his 12 year tenure as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine this June, his impact will continue as a faculty member after he completes a sabbatical experience.

MacNeil is most proud of UConn’s distinctiveness as a dental school and the continuance of its 50 year history of excellence in dental education, research, clinical care and community service.

“We are unique as a dental school,” said MacNeil, describing it as a place where dental students learn in an integrated curriculum with medical students and faculty actively collaborating in research and other endeavors with colleagues in the School of Medicine.

During his tenure MacNeil maximized the contributions of Bioscience Connecticut and transformed the physical infrastructure of the school with renovated academic areas, simulation training centers, state-of-the-art dental clinics, and advanced technology.

“The physical renewal we have accomplished here lifts a heavy burden off the next generation of faculty and school leaders,” said MacNeil. “The focus can now be on high-caliber people and programs, by attracting the best faculty, staff and students, and supporting the already talented people we have to keep our school on the leading edge. Our school has amazing faculty mentors and leaders, so people early in their academic careers can come here and be successful.”

MacNeil believes that the School has a bright future. He sees further growth in inter-professional training for students and residents with their colleagues in the other health professions and envisions faculty demonstrating their competency as extenders of the primary care team and introducing a greater medical or general health care dimension to their clinical activities.

“We are the perfect place for such experimentation because of our integrated structure and our academic interests,” said MacNeil. “We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care.”

He also notes the many avenues for faculty to bring their ideas and discoveries into action, with UConn Health’s new incubator labs, entrepreneurial pursuit guidance, and a more robust campus amenable to wider scientific collaborations including with The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine. “The key is looking beyond roadblocks and limitations and seeing the many opportunities that surround us and maximizing them.”

MacNeil will spend a large part of his upcoming sabbatical on the national stage as chair of the Board of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), an organization with over 20,000 members and representing 76 U.S. and Canadian dental schools. ADEA will provide MacNeil with an opportunity to pursue a number of interest areas, including reform in national dental licensure, encouraging interest by students in academic careers, and expanding the international dialogue in dental education.

“I’ll maintain an office at ADEA headquarters and will be doing a fair amount of travelling for the association nationally and internationally this year, all great opportunities to advance discussion on these topics and, in parallel, promote UConn,” MacNeil said.

MacNeil’s greatest passion however, is in two additional areas: student assessment and the integration of dental care within larger medical or health systems. Both areas are critical priorities for dental education. “It’s been 20 years since dental education took the lead in converting to a competency-based education platform,” explained MacNeil. “As part of this, we devote huge amounts of time and effort to student assessment. It’s now time to look ahead and consider new, innovative methods, some emerging from other health professions. My hope is that is that we’ll bring thought leaders together this year to describe a path for the future.”

MacNeil greatest focus will be in researching the benefits of integrating oral health care into primary or general medical care systems. Several large national health care originations have done this and are reporting quite remarkable early outcomes, according to MacNeil.

“We now know that by reducing the inflammation burden of oral diseases, overall health outcomes are improved, especially for those suffering from chronic, inflammation-based diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and asthma,” said MacNeil. “This is also being seen through rather dramatic reductions in health care costs, both for acute and chronic care, in these groups. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of this interplay this year.” He will be working with ADEA and other organizations with the goal to formulate a national symposium on the topic. He also believes the implications to dental education will be profound.

In discussion of these new endeavors, MacNeil acknowledges that he probably embraces change a bit more readily than most, recognizing that change can be difficult for many people, even those in education and research.  “I guess I’d credit or blame that on my background. I come from pretty humble beginnings, part of the first generation in my family to attend college,” MacNeil shared. “Every step forward necessitated significant adjustment, so I guess I equate change with progress. The two don’t necessarily have to occur together but, from what I’ve seen, change and progress almost always go hand in hand.”

He adds: “Looking back, it has been quite humbling to be the dean of a dental school with such a great national reputation and part of such a distinguished university,” said MacNeil. “It has been a phenomenal experience and a privilege to work with the talented faculty, staff and students here.”

MacNeil joined the dental school as a graduate student in 1986 after six years in private practice. In 1998 he started his twenty year span on the school’s leadership team first as an associate dean, then as senior associate dean, and was named dean in 2007. He has shepherded the dental school through three perfect accreditation reviews, and witnessed the School of Dental Medicine’s national ranking rise from 18th to 11th in funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The School was awarded the prestigious William J. Gies Award for Achievement in 2016. MacNeil helped establish a new cross-campus Biomedical Engineering Department in partnership with the UConn Schools of Medicine and Engineering.

“My endpoint goal as dean was to leave the school in a better state than when I took office,” said MacNeil. “I am confident that has been accomplished. We are stronger than ever before and I know we will keep pushing the boundaries of dental medicine further to accomplish even more.”

UConn is expected to name its next dental dean this summer.