Fall 2013

Material World

Summer research internships span the globe

By Gail Bambrick

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Map illustration: Jon Cannell

Dental materials—amalgams, composites, glass ionomer cements, dentine bonding agents and titanium—have shaped modern restorative dentistry. Advancements in everything from simple fillings and crowns to bridges and implants have been made possible by research into which new or modified substances work best for patients.

Materials research requires not just good bench science, but also an understanding of how dentists will use such materials and how they stand up to the demands patients put on their teeth.

The School of Dental Medicine’s International Research Program has been helping students make the connection between the science and the patient for nine years by placing them in the labs of some of the world’s top materials research and manufacturing firms for a couple of weeks each summer.

This year, nine students worked in labs from Germany to Australia, often doing research on products about to hit the market. They performed feasibility testing and product comparisons against competitors, says Jennifer Towers, director of research affairs at the dental school.

“For one thing, it gives you a global perspective on dentistry.” —Sapan Bhatt, D14

The first year, just two students signed on, but every year since, it has become more competitive. “Interest in the program has grown so strong that we had to implement a new application process this year because we had far more students than openings at our companies,” Towers says. (The companies pay for the students’ travel and housing while they’re in residence.) “When students lobby to go back for a second summer, we know they find the program has value for them.”

Sapan Bhatt, D14, is a third-timer in the program who researched restorative composites at Southern Dental Industries (SDI) in Melbourne, Australia, this summer.

“For one thing, it gives you a global perspective on dentistry—what kinds of materials are needed for different kinds of protocols and practices,” Bhatt says. “I have become very interested in the business aspects of the dental-materials field, and I could enjoy being a conduit, a consultant on how to market to private practices. But I am still drawn to health care, working with people in intimate settings. This has broadened my horizons in many ways when it comes time for a career choice.”

The companies also benefit from having the students on-site, says Josh Cheetham, research and development director at SDI. “We get research done that we really wouldn’t have time for otherwise,” he says. “But it’s most important to have actual dentists on-site who can bring a new perspective of what really happens in a clinic. It can really improve a product.”

Sharing new cultural perspectives also boosts mood and motivation in the lab, Cheetham says, stressing that the Tufts students are “second to none” in their professionalism and drive. “They come here to work, and they do, and they really love it.”

The students and the companies also benefit from having the students publish their research abstracts—it lends credibility to the company’s work and gives students an entrée into the publishing world and the chance to give presentations at professional conferences, Towers says.

“This provides great benefits all around,” she says, noting she’s looking to find placements for students with companies in Japan next summer.

Gail Bambrick, a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications, can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.

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