Purnima Kumar is a Professor of Periodontology at The Ohio State University, Columbus. She received her dental degree from Annamalai University in India, and her Masters in periodontology and Ph.D. in molecular microbiology from The Ohio State University, Columbus. Kumar is a Diplomate of the American Board of Periodontology. In addition to her clinical practice, she maintains an active research program in human microbial ecology that is funded through the NIH and oral healthcare corporate partners and has authored over 100 papers and book chapters. Kumar is the Editor in Chief of Clinical Advances in Periodontics, and editor of the Journal of Periodontology, Nature Scientific Reports and Microbiome. Kumar is currently the co-director of the D.D.S./Ph.D. program and the co-PI of the institutional T32 training grant and has served on several grant review panels for the NIH. She has mentored several pre-dental, dental, master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral students and junior faculty colleagues. She is a Fellow of The Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) program. She presently serves as the Chair of the Continuing Education Oversight Committee for the American Academy of Periodontology and is a member of the Taskforce for Women in Periodontics. Kumar is a member of the Council of Scientific Affairs of the American Dental Association and is also their official spokesperson on e-cigarettes and vaping. Kumar has also served on various committees of International Association for Dental Research, and is current the Vice-President of the Periodontal Research Group.
1. How did you first learn about the AADR and what motivated you to join?
I joined the AADR as a Ph.D. student. As a student, the highlight of the year is to present your research at a AADR/IADR meeting. My first AADR meeting was San Diego, Calif., and I was blown away by the opportunities I had to advance my research and for networking. Whether you're doing an oral presentation or a poster presentation, the number of people who stop by and discuss your poster with you and the number of ideas you come away with for future research is incredible. That was an experience I'd never had before and it was absolutely brilliant.
2. Can you describe your research? How do you hope your work will impact others?
I am a microbial ecologist, which means I study the human microbiome, how it contributes to human health and why disturbances in this community can cause various diseases in humans. My focus right now is the oral cavity. I believe that the mouth is not Vegas — what happens in the mouth doesn't stay in the mouth. It impacts so many other systems, since it is the first gateway system, not just to the gastrointestinal tract, but to every part in your body, even to the deep organs that you might not think can be impacted by what happens in the mouth. Truly understanding how the millions of bacteria that live in your mouth interact with the immune system is critical. How do these bacteria establish an equilibrium? What causes this equilibrium to break down? Is it genetic? Is it environmental?
Even if there is a genetic basis for a disease, many genes don't get turned on or off unless the environment triggers it. So, I study smoking, vaping, antibiotic use, pregnancy and diabetes mellitus to explore how these triggers cause a breakdown in the crosstalk between the microbiome and the immune system. When does that breakdown in communication actually lead to disease? When does disease in the mouth have a large enough impact, that it can actually start having effects elsewhere in the body?
3. Can you describe your experience being a researcher from an underrepresented group in science?
I lived and worked in three countries before I came to the United States, as a citizen in one country and an ‘expat’ in the others. I have learned that definitions of the term ‘underrepresented’ are highly variable; in some cases, you belong to the group because of your nationality, in some others because of your gender, and in yet others because of your race/ethnicity. In many instances, it is a combination of all the above. I moved to the United States to get away from that sort of discrimination, not just for myself, but my young daughters.
I was standing by my poster at an AADR meeting after my first paper had been published, and someone came up to me and said, “I am looking for Kumar,” and I said “I am Kumar, that is my last name.” “Oh, you are the Kumar who published that paper in the Journal of Dental Research? You did great work; I thought you were a man” he said.
I know they meant it as a compliment but this experience actually sensitized me. If someone doesn't have the worldview to understand your background, it is difficult for them to take a holistic approach to knowing you as a person and understanding what you're going through.
At the time, our D.D.S./PhD program had more male students than female students, so when I became Director of our Ph.D. program, that was one of my huge pushes — to bring in more female students. I wanted to introduce them at an earlier level to science and research, and to get them excited about the ability to grow and have career path in research. We reached out to the local high school students, we did science fairs and partnered with the Ohio Academy of Science to institute a “Future Dentist-Scientist” award for 10 high school students whose projects were dentally related. You see, when I looked at the term ‘underrepresented’ through the lens of what I have experienced, I discovered yet another definition –– those who are underrepresented in terms of exposures. In Ohio, we have very, very small towns and communities. These students have very few opportunities to explore career paths that do not exist in their little communities. With the Future Dentist-Scientist, we got an opportunity to showcase dental research as a potential career path for these students.
4. Have you had the opportunity to mentor Underrepresented Minorities or work to increase diversity in science? If yes, can you describe your experience and what agencies/organizations you worked with?
The Ohio State University, Columbus, has 65,000 students on campus and we have a very diverse community from which to build a diverse research group. As an immigrant woman of color, I know the challenges I have faced and how I converted some of these challenges into opportunities. I have been able to translate these experiences into training lessons and programs and informal mentorship programs for my own research group and others.
It is not sufficient to bring in individuals from underrepresented minorities and expect them to succeed in an environment alien to them or an environment that is not sensitive to their needs. We have programs for underrepresented minorities within the dental school, including a pathway to a dental degree for individuals who are the first college graduates in their families, people who come from an ethnically underrepresented minority or who come from a small town. We provide them with matched-background mentors and have created clubs (Pan-Asian, Arab etc.) and study groups for peer-mentoring and support.
The Ohio State University, Columbus also has a gateway program where research students from around the world, including students from India, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Japan rotate through our lab for two years. We call this a ‘Sandwich Ph.D.’ where the student is co-mentored by their host institution and mentors such as me; and this has opened up immense opportunities for collaboration between our group and several institutions across the world. Not just that, this also provides a window into the wealth of cultural and international perspectives for my own students and opens their eyes to the opportunities available in the bigger world.
To me, diversity is a very complex word. But a more important aspect of diversity is inclusion. You can recruit the most diverse group of individuals, but unless you make them feel included, and understand that we all work to a common goal, we cannot find the win for everyone. A very simple example is the provision of lactation rooms in easily accessible, central areas within a building. Women who choose to balance a career or program of study with motherhood are an underrepresented minority and should not be required to prioritize either of those roles. Likewise, to me, inclusion does not mean just the workforce, but an inclusion into decision making. If you're not represented at the table, someone who does not know your challenges and opportunities is making a decision on your behalf.
5. What role do you think professional associations can play in supporting its members who are members of underrepresented minority/ethnic groups?
The first thing is simply developing a framework of the potential challenges that people of underrepresented minorities can face and then creating personalized programs. Unfortunately, a one size fits all approach does not work with diversity. It never does. It has to be customized and it has to be personalized. It should also provide some kind of a merit recognition for those who mentor, facilitate and advocate. Creating pathways that not only reward the mentee, but also the mentor, I think what would create a more rewarding experience.