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/ Categories: Strides in Science

Jill Helms - April 2014

Jill Helms, D.D.S., Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Surgery at Stanford University, California. Prior to Stanford, Helms spent eight years at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was the director of the molecular and cellular biology laboratory in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. She received her dental degree from the University of Minnesota and her residency certificate and Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut Health Sciences Center.

Her research interests center on regenerative medicine and craniofacial development. In the subject of regenerative medicine, Helms’ laboratory goals are to understand the regulatory pathways that control stem cell self-renewal, proliferation, and differentiation. She has focused on two signaling pathways whose activities seem to be an essential feature of tissue healing. 

The lab has developed a novel packaging method whereby the biological activity of lipidated Wnt and Hedgehog proteins can be preserved in the in vivo wound environment. The long-term goal of Helms’ research program is to elucidate the molecular and cellular mechanisms regulating normal and abnormal craniofacial development. 

Helms reviews manuscripts for leading journals such as Nature, Science and Development, and reviews grants for the NIH, NASA, March of Dimes and a number of non-profit organizations. She is currently secretary-treasurer of the Society for Craniofacial Genetics & Developmental Biology. She is also an active teacher in both craniofacial and stem cell biology, and teaches undergraduate, graduate and continuing education classes at Stanford. She mentors undergraduate and graduate students, dental and medical students, residents and fellows, and has been an advisor for masters and Ph.D. candidates. 

Since joining IADR/AADR in 1986, Helms has served on numerous IADR/AADR Committees. In 2013, she received the IADR Distinguished Scientist Award for Craniofacial Biology Research. 

What prompted you to choose research as a career?
When I was in dental school at the University of Minnesota, I wondered if what I was learning in biochemistry class had any relevance to what I would eventually be doing with patients and I had my doubts. One of my professors thought that maybe the way I could see the utility in learning this basic information was to see what happened in the research lab. He invited me to spend the summer in his lab and it was an eye-opening experience. That gave me an opportunity to explore some basic science questions and do that under the guidance of a mentor who saw patients but was himself a scientist. There, for the first time I realized that if one understood the basic underlying principles that guided how tissues formed or how tissues responded to injury or disease, they might be able to come up with new ideas for treatment. My interest in research began there and that interest never stopped. What prompted you to choose research as a career?

How did you first get involved in AADR?
I joined AADR at the encouragement of the same mentor who got me involved in research. It was almost de facto: if you were going to be in this professional it was incumbent upon you to understand the latest advances. The only way to do that was to be a member of IADR/AADR, there’s no other logical alternative. I joined as a first year dental student and attended my first meeting that same year. 

How would you describe attending your first IADR/AADR meeting as a student?
I was nervous and excited, and I approached it with a lot of trepidation. The reason why is because I saw that professors from my dental school were also presenting posters. Suddenly that barrier that normally separates a student from their professor was gone; we had posters side-by-side. It made me a little nervous but the excitement was that there were people who were interested in the experiments that I had done and I had the opportunity to meet other students who were doing research projects—I had found people who shared my interests. The other part that continues to be exciting is returning to the meetings and seeing those same people year after year. 

How valuable has AADR been to your career?
I’ve never worked for a dental school—my appointments have always been in the medical school—but having ties to dentistry through AADR has been a lifeline that keeps me connected to the same group that encouraged me in the beginning. That is why I continue to participate in AADR now, because it’s the constant and my work is relevant to practicing dentists. AADR is the constant that links it all together and it has been incredibly important to my career. When you’re just starting off and you’re struggling to get your first grant, the support you receive from a group such as AADR is very valuable. You stay loyal to that group throughout your career. 

You mentioned the importance your mentor played in your decision to go into research. What’s a message you want to give to future dental researchers?
Persevere! This isn’t a field for the faint at heart. You enter this field because you’re so interested and curious, and you want to know. If you enter this field because of the fancy title you’ll tire of it. If you go into it because you’re really motivated to understand the problems and challenges that face the profession and you have the goal to add just a bit more knowledge, you will succeed and it will be the best job in the world. This is the kind of job where I can’t wait to get to work in the morning, it’s a field of continual exploration and when you make a discovery that improves a patient’s life, there’s just no better feeling in the world. I would encourage future researchers to persevere because it’s not called search, it’s called research and you have to be willing to fail, fail, fail and press on. 


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