October 2018 – Rena N. D’Souza
Rena N. D’Souza, Ph.D., M.S., D.D.S., B.D.S. is the 2018-19 IADR President and served as AADR President from 2012-13. D’Souza is currently the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and Education and Professor of Dental Sciences, Professor of Neurobiology & Anatomy and Professor of Pathology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. She also holds adjunct professorial appointments as Medical Faculty in the Department of Restorative Dentistry Endodontics and Periodontics at the University of Regensburg, Germany, in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice University, Houston, Texas, in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and in the Department of Endodontics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
How did you first learn about AADR and what motivated you to join?
I started my academic career at the University of Texas in Houston, and that is where I first learned about AADR through my mentors and local chapter. I had the privilege of being mentored by Barnet Levy. At that time, he was the Editor of the Journal of Dental Research (1976-82) and I spent time reviewing articles and volunteering for him as a Ph.D. student. I joined AADR shortly after graduating from my Ph.D. program.
I reached out to AADR and it has been quite magical for my career — it was almost like I had this window to the outside world that really sustained and excited me. The activities that AADR offered me motivated me to continue successfully on the path that I had naturally been drawn to which is to be a scientist who could bridge the gap between what I saw as problems when working with patients and the need to come up with solutions through discovery research.
AADR played a major role in my life. I signed up for membership and things have unfolded in an incredible way for almost 35 years now!
What do you find to be the most valuable benefit of an AADR membership?
Thinking about this question in a chronological way, it is absolutely critical for junior faculty members and Ph.D. students to realize that there is a world of experts outside local setting who know more than you can imagine. Thirty years ago we did not have the internet so it was not as easy to connect as it is now. I found that the annual meetings and general sessions to be of extreme value. During the entire year, I would be looking forward to this one event to occur. This was where I had my first opportunity to present in front of an audience — sometimes flopping miserably. Sometimes my slides would get stuck, my talk was not flowing well and this was a great way to learn communication skills and to be reviewed by peers in a friendly setting.
As I moved up in the Association, I met new people in different dental schools and learned more about what was happening in each school. These people soon became my friends, but most importantly I was very fortunate to have role models and mentoring from a host of scientists.
When I first joined, Gunnar Bergenholtz, Leif Bakand, Tom Hanks were senior leaders of the IADR Pulp Biology Group which was a very small, close-knit group. The members of this group became my extended family and they gave me the opportunity to serve in multiple roles. I started at the bottom of the ladder by being the secretary and working on the newsletters. I worked in the trenches which was a good thing because it trained me on how the organization works. It also helped me gain leadership and team-building skills and taught me how to get other researchers excited about the work I was doing. I went from reviewing abstracts to reviewing grants at the NIH and giving the bigger talks which meant broader collaboration — most of which was facilitated through AADR.
Being in competitions, I learned the value of losing. I mostly benefited from a rich cadre mentors and from the opportunities to meet people at IADR and AADR meetings. I met Larry Tabak, who was the Director of the NIDCR at the time, at an AADR meeting. Every meeting moving forward we would schedule a half hour on a set of bar stools and exchange information from the past year — having that face to face connection meant a lot to me.
What do you want to see in the future for AADR?
As I continued to grow professionally within AADR, I realized that annual meetings were not enough — I wanted to have these connections as a larger presence in my everyday life and that is what I want to see in the future for IADR and AADR. I want it to be much more central and meaningful for every dental, oral and craniofacial researcher in academic life.
I’d like to see AADR expand its pipeline of dental researchers in terms of gender, race and research area, and develop a more diverse leadership. I think this can be accomplished by inviting people into our membership who are not in currently in dental, oral and craniofacial research. AADR provides many benefits that not only impact AADR members but could impact individuals outside of dental research as well. I’d like to see AADR engage students and junior researchers in new ways such as social media. As we put new programs and ideas in place, AADR’s value extends past the annual meetings.
What is the best way for other members to become more involved in AADR?
As I think back on my journey, getting involved in your local chapter is very important. All the magic happens at the chapter level. As you get involved at your local university or chapter you begin to take on new roles as you help increase awareness about AADR and IADR in faculty colleagues, even those who work outside your dental school. As you grow in those leadership roles, then you might expand to engagement and leadership in the various IADR Groups or Networks.
How important do you think cross-collaboration with other scientific disciplines is to the future of dental, oral and craniofacial research?
When thinking about this question, I considered the full context of the head and oral cavity. Every disease is multifactorial. If you look at dental decay, it does not just involve a cavitation that needs to be filled — many factors such as diet, the oral microbiome, brushing habits, etc. come into play. We have to be much more multifactorial in our research approach.
Cross-collaboration can and is occurring and we need to continue to integrate dental research with other professions. This mindset especially needs to be emphasized in dental education. There is also a need for cross-collaboration within the dental research field. Dental, oral and craniofacial tissues offer unparalleled biological systems for study and the research we conduct, showcase and disseminate reflects our standing as knowledge-based profession. Ultimately for our research to help individuals live a healthy life, cross-collaboration within and outside of dental, oral and craniofacial research is imperative.