Diversity in dentistry: Women researchers leading the way in dental advances

Women researchers leading the way in dental advances

Volpe Research Center has been famous for developing materials, tools and technologies used in the field of dentistry for the last 90 years and counting. It’s kind of a big deal. More than 200 products used in dental practices all over the world have come out of the Volpe labs. Some of science’s brightest minds work there.

Today, of the Volpe Research Center’s six principal investigators — those who manage and direct all the projects and research — four are women. That’s some serious girl power.

These VRC scientists are focused on developing improved “smart” dental materials such as dental composites with superpowers. Well, sort of.

These “smart” materials they are developing are resistant to breakdown, capable of self-healing and have antimicrobial properties. They are also developing improved sensors to help early detection of dental decay and periodontal disease.

While not dentists, these women are playing a significant role in how dentists work and, ultimately, the oral health of patients across the globe. Imagine a faster and more accurate way to assess a person’s health such as risk of heart disease and diabetes through inspecting a person’s mouth. That’s just one of the amazing projects these scientists are working on.

“We’re designing and testing sensors that we can one day use in people’s mouths to detect a variety of diseases,” said Nicole Ritzert, Ph.D., lead researcher on that project. “I’m not a biologist or dentist, but I know how to measure relevant parameters such as pH. I’m able to use my expertise to help fill in gaps in oral health research.”

Another project on the radar of these scientists is researching the effects of e-cigarette vapor, especially the sweet-flavored e-liquids, on oral health. “Based on the biological and physiochemical data, we found that certain e-liquid ingredients interact with hard tissues of the oral cavity in such a way that resembles high-sucrose candies and acidic drinks,” Shinae Kim, Ph.D., said.

Dr. Kim has an extensive background in optics, electronics, nano/micro-fabrication and microfluidics. She first joined the VRC as a postdoctoral fellow in February 2017 before becoming a principal investigator in April.

In addition, by offering scientific data and evidence, dentists can better help their patients understand the potential harmful effects of e-cigarette flavors.

“[The work at the VRC] does not start with a mere intellectual curiosity, but we do research to help dentists,” Dr. Kim said. “There, it is very attractive to me to conduct more practical and directly usable research. It’s different from other research institutes or universities.”

Volpe Research Center is truly a unique place because of the center’s interdisciplinary research areas of engineering, physics, chemistry and dentistry.

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