When Devin Daniels was thinking about choosing a career, he conducted a quick assessment of his personal qualities. Small hands? Check. Ability to understand people with their mouths full? Check. His decision? Dentistry. “I knew I wanted a career in the health industry and wanted to own my own business,” says Daniels, who grew up in St. George, Utah, and graduated from Dixie State University with a degree in biology in 2013.
Amber Lunsford’s interest in the profession was more idealistic. “I’ve always wanted to help people improve their confidence,” says Lunsford, who received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah in 2013. “I see myself being able to do that in dentistry through individuals’ smiles. When you can restore someone’s smile and make such a drastic change in their lives, it has an amazing impact. That’s very real.”
Daniels and Lunsford are among the 20 students who enrolled in the historic first class of the University’s new School of Dentistry in fall 2013. It’s the nation’s first new dental school at a major research university since the 1960s and the first new school on the U campus in more than 50 years. With the addition of the dental school, the University of Utah now offers students opportunities in every aspect of health sciences education. In August 2013, the U also broke ground on the $36.4 million Ray and Tye Noorda Oral Health Education Building, which will house the U’s new dental school. The nearly 80,000-square-foot building in Research Park, slated for completion this December, is being constructed with a $30 million gift from the Noorda family and will provide state-of-the-art lab and classroom facilities, administrative and faculty offices, and a dental clinic that will treat patients.
“The College of Dentistry is a remarkable asset to the University of Utah,” says Vivian S. Lee, the U’s senior vice president for health sciences, dean of the School of Medicine, and chief executive officer of University of Utah Health Care. “Dental health is increasingly being recognized as a key driver of overall health, and our opportunity to enhance the health of the state and region through our research; clinical services, particularly for the underserved; training of future dentists; and community service complements the outstanding work across the Health Sciences campus.”
Rena D’Souza, who was named the school’s first permanent dean in August 2013, notes that it’s a large task, but the U is well positioned to build a program aimed at providing an innovative, 21st-century environment for dental education and research. “The School of Dentistry will shape the future of dentistry worldwide by developing exemplary oral health professionals who are clinicians, educators, researchers, and community leaders,” she says.
Building any new academic program from the ground up is ambitious, but the University of Utah seems uniquely suited for the challenge, says Charles Bertolami, dean of the New York University College of Dentistry. The U’s long tradition of first-rate scientific research and medical education provide the right academic and cultural foundation for building a top-notch dental school by attracting the right students and faculty, says Bertolami, who like D’Souza is a former president of the American Association for Dental Research. With dentistry an increasingly popular profession, many new dental schools have opened nationwide. But until now, none have been housed at a major university interested in cultivating a strong research mission. “The Utah dental school is very special,” Bertolami says. “It’s an opportunity to retain excellent students within the state who will then practice in the state.”
Bertolami says D’Souza has a combination of skills that make her exactly the right person to build the new program. D’Souza, who grew up in Mumbai, India, and received dental degrees in both India and the United States, is known for being an exceptional scientist and clinician; a pragmatic, outcome-oriented thinker; as well as a mentor and consummate networker who consults widely with colleagues and has sharp administrative skills. “She brings people together,” Bertolami says. “She knows their talents. She recognizes their interests and then mobilizes people and resources and ideas, marshaling them together into very creative kinds of outcomes. She can attract the kind of faculty that you need on both the clinical and the research side.”
D’Souza came to Utah by way of Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Baylor College of Dentistry and the University of Texas in Houston, where she spent 30 years teaching, developing evidence-based curriculum, and conducting research in craniofacial development and regenerative dental medicine. Her research in the use of small molecule replacement therapy for tooth agenesis and dental stem cells is in the process of being translated into therapies for congenitally missing teeth and those that succumb to decay.
Her career and scientific achievement have also garnered her millions in federal grant funds, appointments to leadership roles with prestigious national dental professional associations, and numerous accolades and awards, including the 2010 Presidential Award for Health Research and Excellence from the Texas A&M Science Center. This September, she is scheduled to be inducted into the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, an honor earned by nomination from other academy members.
“First and foremost, I’m a dentist,” says D’Souza, who admits she initially chose dentistry because the path to graduation was shorter than medical school. “My roles as a researcher and educator have centered around solutions to problems I encountered as a clinician while chairside. I am inspired by the need to integrate new research into dental practice.”
Once decided on a career path, D’Souza says, she pushed herself to excel. She came to the United States with her father in 1977 at age 23, after graduating with a bachelor’s of dental surgery degree from the former University of Bombay. Although the U.S. trip was intended only as a short visit, D’Souza was offered a chance to work with a renowned functional anatomist, so she stayed on. A year later, she gave up graduate study in orthodontics at Columbia University to marry a young engineer bent on a career in deep water technology and moved to Houston. By 1987, D’Souza had obtained DDS, master’s, and doctoral degrees, all from the University of Texas Health Science Center. During those years, she also became a mother of two children. She maintained a busy dental practice and went on to join the faculty at UT Houston’s School of Dentistry.
D’Souza found herself drawn to funding opportunities available for dentist-scientists like herself while she continued her practice of dentistry. Although she says she loved working with patients, she wanted more. “I like to get to the bottom of things. I like to analyze things and ask, ‘Why and how do things happen this way?’ ”
She wants to encourage that same the kind of curiosity and drive in students at the U’s new School of Dentistry. Toward that end, she is working to oversee development of a curriculum that marries traditional foundational education and clinical professional best practices with new technology and cutting-edge research. She wants to train professionals who are not just proficient inside the dentist’s office but who are also critical thinkers and problem solvers, with deep emotional intelligence and compassion. D’Souza believes that sort of education will position the U as a “leadership” school and empower its graduates to transform the dental profession. “While most dental schools do a good job graduating technically skilled dentists, it takes a lot more to be a good oral health care provider,” she says.
Cultivating a vibrant environment for dental research is a key part of that vision, so among the goals for the school is the establishment of an interdisciplinary center in craniofacial medicine. The center would draw top researchers and faculty to Utah and provide opportunities for collaboration with medical researchers in human genetics, stem cell biology, substance abuse, tissue engineering, and other areas of study for which the U’s health sciences center is renowned. Another goal: Bring diversity to the dental school’s student and faculty ranks, and by extension, into Utah’s broader dental community. About 98 percent of the state’s 1,700 professional dentists are male. The U’s first class of 20 dental students includes just four women. It’s a small start, the dean says, but a start just the same.
Getting the school from dream to reality wasn’t easy and required the backing of the U’s top administrative and academic leaders as well as the state’s Board of Regents. Additional approval and support was needed from the Utah Legislature and the Utah Dental Association, says Glen R. Hanson PhD’78, the U School of Dentistry’s associate dean of research. “You have to work through a lot of systems, and the path isn’t obvious.”
Since 1980, the University of Utah had offered the Regional Dental Education Program, which provided students with a one-year dental education program at the U and then shipped them off to Creighton University in Nebraska for the remaining three years of training and a diploma. The concept worked but was limited, says G. Lynn Powell, the U dental school’s founding dean, who teamed with Hanson to begin the steps toward founding Utah’s dental school about a dozen years ago. The old regional program’s design also meant that annually a few hundred students and millions of tuition dollars were leaving the state. With the cost of education rising, some academic and dental professionals in Utah wanted to try to give students a local, affordable option, Powell says.
Detractors argued that Utah already had a healthy per-capita supply of dentists and the existing program was sufficient. But Hanson and Powell worked to design a proposal for a new school that made academic and economic sense, and they spent two years traveling the state to meet with dentists and lawmakers to promote their vision and listen to concerns. “The opposition was that we were going to overpopulate the practitioners,” Powell says. To address those concerns, the University agreed to cap the new school’s class size at 20 students, the same number historically enrolled in the regional program. To ease lawmakers’ worries over requests for large amounts of public funds, plans for the new school also included a commitment to not seek funds from the Legislature beyond the annual $500,000 appropriation that had historically been provided for the regional program.
A critical moment in the project’s development came in 2007, in the form of an unexpected gift. Tye Noorda, whose late husband Ray Noorda had founded the software giant Novell in the 1980s, and her four surviving children came forward with $30 million and the hope of starting a dental school. Her gift was accompanied by a request that the school’s mission include an emphasis on serving those who can’t otherwise access dental care. “The story Mrs. Noorda told was that when she was first married, she broke her teeth in a fall outside her church,” says Powell. “They were students with no resources to fix it and help her smile again,” and she had to wait until later to have her teeth repaired. Her memory of that experience prompted her request with her gift at the U. “Part of her motivation was to provide care for those who can’t afford it.”
The school was finally approved by the Legislature in 2012. Hanson hopes the school will serve to better integrate dentistry into the broader health sciences so that tomorrow’s practitioners will work more closely with physicians and other health care providers. Encouraging dental research will also help broaden opportunities for U students and change the future of dental health for the community. “We believe students can come here and get outstanding clinical training and have a very productive and fulfilling life as practicing dentists; however, we think there are benefits to having this other emphasis in research,” he says. “The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s a different sort of vision for what a dental school can be.”
The combination of an innovative curriculum and a state-of-the-art facility helped the U draw outstanding students to its inaugural class. More than 850 students applied for the 20 class slots. Those selected had an average grade point average of 3.81, which was the highest of any class admitted to all the nation’s dental schools in 2013, D’Souza says.
Dental students Daniels and Lunsford both applied to multiple schools across the country, but they had the U’s School of Dentistry at the top of their list, even though they knew the program was unproven. The affordable $33,837 annual in-state tuition was a factor for both students (by comparison, Creighton’s 2013-14 annual tuition was $52,886), but the idea of being a part of building an innovative program was also a draw. “It was exciting to know that I’d be a part of the inaugural class and that we’d all play a big role in setting the stage for how this school grows and evolves,” says Daniels.
Classes are small, and the faculty-to-student ratio is high—sometimes four or five clinicians for every 10 students. Lunsford says that makes the learning environment more individualized and supportive. “Most schools have more than 80 students,” says Lunsford. “The fact that we have more interaction with the professors and faculty means we can build relationships.”
At the one-year mark, D’Souza couldn’t be happier with the progress that has been made. Key faculty members have been hired. Curricula are well into development, and the school has secured preliminary accreditation and been awarded its first two research grants: one focused on drug addiction and another examining brain function and pain. Other grants awarded to new faculty recruits, including D’Souza, support research in genetics, tissue engineering, and salivary gland biology. And construction of the new building is on time and on budget. With those pieces together, D’Souza says she knows what kind of place she wants the school to be a decade from now: “A place whose students have gone out and transformed the profession. A place where faculty and students are not just good consumers and producers of knowledge, but whose leadership in the community exemplifies the spirit of giving back.”
—Jennifer Dobner is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City and a frequent
contributor to Continuum.