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April 2018 – Athena Papas

Athena Papas is the Distinguished Professor of Diagnostic Sciences, the Erling Johansen Professor of Dental Research and the Head of the Division of Oral Medicine at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, Mass, where she has worked in an environment conducive to  research for over 40 years. She received her dental degree from Harvard University and her Ph.D. in Oral Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Papas has led over 100 studies as a principal investigator in the fields of Sjögren’s Syndrome, xerostomia, geriatric dentistry, cancer, HIV and medically compromised patients. Among her many accomplishments, Papas created a program for the elderly and cancer patients for the Area Health Education Center in Boston and helped identify the need for care in an under-served population of nursing home patients, geriatric housing project residents and the homebound elderly. She worked with local community leaders as part of a consortium of health care providers to develop a program that offered home dental care to elderly patients. As a result of her efforts, a demonstration clinic was established in New Bedford, MA, and services 18 nursing homes. 

Along with many other honors, Dr.Papas was selected as the 2009 recipient of the International Association of Dental Research Pharmacology/Therapeutics/Toxicology Distinguished Scientist Award. She is on the Board of Directors for the Task Force of Design and Analysis on Oral Health Research. The Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation honored her as a Sjögren’s Champion and gave her their Healthcare Professional Leadership Award in 2017.

How did you first learn about AADR and what motivated you to join?
I was a Ph.D. student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology getting a degree in oral biology with Dr. Melvin  Glimcher at MGH who introduced me to AADR. I went to the local chapter in Boston and presented my work on enamel and won the first prize there. That encouraged me to keep engaged with IADR which I did in Chicago in 1970 — I’ve been a member for a long time! 

I was only 20 when I was at MIT. I had planned to be a dentist, but when I got into Tufts dental school, I was going to be the only woman in my class and I chickened out. Luckily, I had two cousins at MIT who knew I was interested in research, so I applied for the MIT Ph.D. program. Everyone else in the program had already had their dental and specialty degrees, so they treated me like a little sister. I was very shy, but my classmates coached me and helped me with public speaking. The community there brought me into the research world and encouraged me along the way.

What do you find to be the most valuable benefit of AADR membership?
IADR and AADR meetings are a wonderful place to meet colleagues and bring my students so they could experience the richness of the science of dental research. In dental school it’s easy to get caught up in work and requirements, but going to meetings expands one’s view. Many of my students have gone on to get Ph.D.s or teach. For example, Kathleen O’Loughlin is now the American Dental Association Executive Director. The meetings are an excellent place to introduce students to the science of dentistry and oral biology. I’ve had over 75 students go and my team has given around 200 presentations — it’s been a wonderful experience for all my students. 

What do you want to see in the future for AADR?
I’d like to see AADR collaborate more with other groups. I love that IADR and AADR feature keynote speakers from other fields because I think we are coming to an age where dentistry has become an integral part of overall research and medicine. I am excited to see the Association reaching out to other fields.

What is the best way for other members to become more involved in AADR?
I think serving on committees and eventually working your way up to positions such as President or Council member is key. I’ve been on advisory committees to set up groups such as the IADR Nutrition Group and the IADR Geriatric Oral Research — working with colleagues fertilizes new ideas. It’s very important to be part of the organization for one’s personal career and for the field as a whole.

How important do you think cross-collaboration with other scientific disciplines is to the future of dental, oral and craniofacial research?
Very, very important! I am in oral medicine and I do a lot of translation research. If I couldn’t work at the hospital and do infusions, I couldn’t do my work. If I didn’t have rheumatologists and hematologists to collaborate with, I couldn’t do my work. I think it’s very important that we expand our horizons. Especially in the areas of regenerative medicine — it’s an exciting new field. One of my dreams is to see the regeneration of teeth and now my colleague Pamela Yelick is actually working on that!

After MIT, I was accepted into dental school a Harvard University and I was  in the first class of women graduates post World War Two. There was one woman who had a dental degree who went to Harvard during the War and there had been no one since. Women being involved in dentistry and dental research is sort of a late thing — that’s why I supported the AADR Anne D. Haffajee Fellowship. She and I were very good friends and had collaborated together.

It’s amazing how interactions with colleagues can shpre your career and define new fields of research. I was always interested in special populations. I started looking into geriatrics because we were interested in what happens to saliva as we age and I later created a course in geriatrics and put together a text book. Then all of a sudden HIV came into the picture. I was recruited to teach people how to treat patients with HIV as there was a stigma at the time. Now HIV research is mainstream;  I went on to focus my research on Sjögren’s Syndrome, an immune system disorder characterized by dry eyes and dry mouth, but can affect any part of the body. Sjögren’s Syndrome has been grossly neglected. I like to go where the need is and without collaboration at all stages of my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

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