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Athanasios I. Zavras - February 2012

Athanasios I. Zavras, D.M.D., M.S., D.M.Sc., is associate professor of Epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (MSPH) and associate professor of dentistry at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM), where he directs the Dental Public Health residency program. He is also the director of the Division of Oral Epidemiology and Biostatistics at CDM and a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. Zavras holds adjunct faculty appointments at the Harvard School of Public Health and at The Forsyth Institute in Boston.

Zavras received a D.M.D. degree from the University of Athens (1991), followed by advanced studies in pediatric dentistry at Tufts University (1993) and dental public health at Harvard University(1996). He also holds an M.S. degree in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health (1994) and a D.M.Sc. from Harvard Medical School (1999). Upon completing his doctoral studies in oral epidemiology he applied for and received two career development awards, a K23 and a K22, both funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). These awards provided for added training opportunities in clinical trials and pharmacogenetics, and set the stage for a research career in molecular oral epidemiology.

Zavras’ long-term vision is to fully implement the concept of personalized medicine in dentistry. His research is focused on determining the pathophysiological processes that underlie oral diseases, and on translating research findings into useful clinical applications. His approach of translational research is unconventional and includes agnostic genome-wide screening of affected populations followed by detailed documentation of possible risk factors and behaviors, and cross checking for gene environment interactions. Significant findings are subsequently verified in separate groups. This translational approach is highly efficient and has yielded promising results in oral carcinogenesis and in the pharmacogenetics of drug-induced osteonecrosis of the jaw.

Zavras serves as the principal investigator of an ongoing research project entitled Pilot Whole Genome Association Study of Oral Cancer (funded by the NIDCR). He also collaborates with colleagues at Harvard University to explore oral cancer screening in the community for seniors residing in nursing homes (also funded by the NIDCR).

He has been an AADR member since 1993.

What attracted you to the dental research field?
As an undergraduate dental student I found myself attracted to technology and its potential role in helping people in need. At the time the fastest computer processor was the Intel 80286. One of my first research attempts was to explore the use of computer imaging in dentistry. I remember collaborating with another dental student, Dr. Vicky Cartsos—now a professor of Orthodontics at Tufts—and ended up publishing an article. We both felt a sense of accomplishment when we saw it in print. Dr. Cartsos eventually became my partner in life and we continue doing research together to this day, laboring over manuscripts and celebrating new publications like they are newborn children. The first opportunity to do real research came during my pediatric dentistry residency at Tufts when I collaborated with Dr. Andrew Jackson, a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, to explore the use of acoustic rhinometry in children. Today, 20 years later, this non-invasive technology has found its way into clinical practice in the evaluation of sleep apnea.

What led you to join AADR?
I joined AADR as a graduate student at the Harvard School of Public Health. At the time I was exploring suitable dissertation subjects, and I was encouraged by my mentor, Prof. Chester Douglass, to attend the AADR meeting. Having the opportunity to see so many exhibits of great science, all in a single venue, and to discuss with the creators of such science helped me crystalize the research idea. Later, as the dissertation started producing results, AADR became my primary venue to present results and to get early feedback from colleagues.

What are some of the most valuable benefits of your AADR membership?
My AADR membership provides many benefits including access to the Journal of Dental Research and to research news that is relevant to my work, dental research advocacy and “a voice on the Hill”, as well as having a venue to meet annually with dental scientists across the United States to share and disseminate knowledge. 

How important is cross-collaboration to your success as a researcher?
Most of my work involves multiple traditional disciplines such as epidemiology, statistics, data mining, genetics, engineering and behavioral sciences. Because the disciplines that collaborate are often so diverse, our training programs at Columbia University teach how to collaborate by stepping outside one’s comfort zone and emphasize the need to appreciate different schools of thought, even different terminologies. Once learned, this interdisciplinarity unites people behind a common goal, in our case to develop molecular diagnostics for early disease detection, and brings fresh new perspectives into traditional research methods that allow us to work at the frontier. This is the strength of cross-collaboration.

Where do you feel the research community would be without AADR?
AADR plays an active role in nurturing, preserving and expanding the oral health research enterprise. It does so within a very complicated social, political and professional environment where priorities depend on delicate and complicated calculations and various key stakeholders often with competing interests. The research community would have no voice without AADR.
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