Spring 2018

A Long Line of Student Scientists

For 20 years, Tufts has been winning spots at NIH research program.

By Emma Johnson

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Kelly Kimiko Leong, D14, DG16, investigated neuroscience at the National Institutes of Mental Health. Photo: Christopher Hartlove

Imagine leaving dental school after your third year—your classmates, your patients, your school responsibilities—to take a full-year research sabbatical. It’s a daunting prospect. Yet over the past two decades, ten intrepid Tufts dental students have done just that to conduct research at the National Institutes of Health. Tufts dental students have dominated dental school participation in research programs at the NIH, representing nearly one-third of all dental students who have completed them.

Located at the NIH’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, the Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP) has students engage in a closely mentored basic, clinical, or translational research project, matching their interests and career goals. Only one or two dental students are accepted each year (most participants are medical students). Other NIH student research programs that have included Tufts dental students are the Clinical Research Training Program and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-NIH Research Scholars Program, both of which were combined in 2012 into the current MRSP.

Tufts’ connections to the NIH really started with Bruce Baum, D71, H17. Baum is a scientist emeritus at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the former director of the MRSP, and a former mentor to Tufts MRSP participants. He said the NIH’s program is about more than affording learning opportunities for students. “The NIH is really concerned about the next generation of clinical scientists,” he said. “Those who are going to develop the therapies of the future.”

Edward Lahey, D99, the first Tufts dental student to complete a year-long NIH program, believes that Tufts’ success in getting participants recruited lies in the school’s support system. When Lahey applied, then-Dean Lonnie Norris, Mark Gonthier, who was then associate dean of student affairs, and Sandra Pearson, who was director of financial aid, made sure his participation wouldn’t affect his student loans. And when it was time to return to school for his final year, they made sure his transfer was seamless.

Jennie Leikin

The work school officials did to smooth Lahey’s participation continues. Jason Berglund, D18, who participated in 2016-2017, said he felt encouraged to take part when he learned that the school administration created a process that wouldn’t disrupt their student status. “Tufts was incredibly supportive,” he said. “They really support those that want to partake in the program, and they make it feasible for students to actually participate.”

Lahey regularly returns to the dental school to present on the benefits of the MRSP. He stresses that the program allows participants to find research that excites them, even if it is outside dental medicine. Lahey worked at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases conducting research on immunology in the gut. “I always thought the best part of the program was that it allowed participants to create their own unique program,” he said. “It’s rare to find yourself in an environment where you’re expected just to think and nurture your aspirations.”

And the legacy of Tufts Dental at the NIH continues: Andrew Lum, D19, was selected as one of only two dental students nationwide in the 2017-2018 MRSP. He plans to complete his fellowship in June.

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