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Science of leadership

Dr. Rena D'Souza

Department Chair
Dr. Rena D'Souza, second
from right, with several
members of the biomedical
sciences team

Photo by Steven Doll

D'Souza is on the front lines, advancing dental research on a national scale as president of AADR or locally, as chair of biomedical sciences

During Dr. Rena D’Souza’s childhood years, she had a curious habit every evening come mealtime.

“I remember my mom telling me I would dissect the food on my plate,” she says. “If I was eating snap peas, I would break them open and take them out.

“Now I think of it like peeling an onion, even if I’m crying while doing it,” she says, alluding to the often tedious grant-writing process.

It’s that curiosity that D’Souza, professor and chair of biomedical sciences, says lies at the core of research.

“The ability to stay focused with that passion makes the difference between success and failure,” she says.

D’Souza knows a thing or two about staying focused on research objectives. Now, the researcher — whose own studies on tooth development and genetics have maintained uninterrupted funding for more than 20 years — gets candid on her own objectives for the American Association of Dental Research, of which she was inducted as president this month. She also delves into the state of dental research across the nation and addresses Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry’s progress in that arena for the past several years.

Dr. Rena D'Souza
D'Souza at her induction as president of the American Association for Dental

Photo courtesy Dr. Rena D'Souza

The year ahead

It’s a Thursday in early January, and on this particular morning, D’Souza isn’t traveling and — for the moment — doesn’t have any last-minute meetings slated. It probably won’t stay that way for long, considering she oversees a department with more than 100 employees.

Even so, she exudes a sense of calm in the cozy conference room adjacent to her fourth-floor office. There’s no need to feel rushed as she outlines her 2012 goals for AADR, an organization to which D’Souza says she is truly indebted, describing it as her ‘window to the world’ during her years as a developing faculty member.

Since D’Souza began her term as vice president in 2010, she has focused on increasing AADR’s membership, reaching out to dental schools that lack research infrastructure and developing opportunities for junior researchers to network with seasoned professionals.

“AADR must play a role in bridging the gap between research and clinical educators.”

—Dr. Rena D'Souza

The work doesn’t stop there.

For starters, D’Souza notes the pace of membership growth for AADR’s international counterpart, the International Association for Dental Research, is outpacing the national-level organization. To give membership a boost, D’Souza says AADR is taking steps to shift from functioning as an operational organization to serving as a governing entity, one that constantly strives toward change. She is working to strengthen AADR by expanding membership to scientists outside the dental school setting.

The goals are based on D’Souza’s belief that dental education should produce lifelong learners grounded in evidence-based science and skilled at critical thinking and problem solving.

“AADR must play a role in bridging the gap between research and clinical educators,” she says.

While tackling those efforts, some of D’Souza’s myriad duties include testifying on Capitol Hill during budget hearings for the National Institutes of Health — which she did March 29 — and presiding as president and chair of the AADR Board of Directors.

Dr. Rena D'Souza
D'Souza at her induction as an American Association of Anatomists fellow, with
Nina Fedoroff, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors.

Photo courtesy Dr. Rena D'Souza

Dr. David Carlson, TAMHSC vice president for research and dean of the School of Graduate Studies, recruited D’Souza to the health science center in 2006 and offers his take on her capabilities.

“As both a scientist and dentist, there are few if any who can match Rena’s vision and contributions, which made her a natural to become the president of the largest national organization of dental scientists in the world,” says Carlson.

Co-workers at TAMHSC-BCD who have worked closely with D’Souza have full confidence when it comes to her 2012 goals for AADR. Dr. Lynne Opperman, director of the Office of Technology Development and professor in biomedical sciences, is one of them.

“If anyone has the ability to increase the national profile and impact of AADR on dental research and education, it is Rena,” Opperman says.

Dental research on a national scale

“It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times,” D’Souza says of the state of dental research as a whole. She uses the Charles Dickens reference to contrast the strides in technological advancements with one of the growing complexities inherent to an ever-increasing — and aging — global population. 

“Dentistry is struggling right now to maintain itself as a scientific profession,” D’Souza adds. “Right now it appears the advancement of research in dental schools is on the decline,” she says, listing budget cuts and a decrease in outside funding sources as the prime culprits.

“Dentistry has grown in the private sector because it’s so lucrative,” she says. “Research is the road less traveled.

“But without research we cannot sit at the table as scientific professionals, and there are opportunities in dentistry that cannot be ignored,” D’Souza adds. She stresses the need to develop a new generation of biologically inspired dental materials that look and behave like body tissues, as opposed to metals, ceramics and rubber.

State of research at TAMHSC-BCD

Nothing is more damaging to an institution than the divide between clinical and research-driven faculty, D’Souza says. With two dental degrees, she has seen both sides of the spectrum.

“There is still a gap, but it’s not as damaging or as polarizing at TAMHSC-BCD as it is at other dental schools,” she says. “That issue drove the vision for creating the evidence-based dentistry initiative.” Funded by the NIH Oral Health Research Education R25 grant, and now in its fourth and final year of implementation at the college, that initiative scored D’Souza a vote of confidence from her peers back in 2010, when she was nominated for the TAMHSC Presidential Award for Excellence in Research.

“It took a lot of good leadership behind the scenes,” she says of fellow faculty members and their continued focus on evidence-based dentistry. “It’s definitely on the map nationally now, and there’s momentum.”

One strength, she says, is the thriving AADR-Dallas Section of faculty and students that ranks among the most active in the entire country.

But the work is far from over, D’Souza adds, noting she wants to see TAMHSC-BCD continue to diversify its research portfolio, increase clinical and translational research within its departments and forge closer ties with Dallas-based institutions.

‘Thrill of scientific discovery’

Through it all, D’Souza has never lost her passion for bench research.

Her hectic schedule has kept her from conducting lab experiments, but she has stayed close to the research process. Most recently, D’Souza was able to secure funding for the study of a natural peptide that can be used in place of fillings. Dr. Jeffrey Hartgerink, an associate professor of both chemistry and bioengineering at Rice University, developed the peptide, and D’Souza determined how to apply it to the clinical setting.

Her outlook mirrors a statement that Dr. Ophir Klein, principal investigator at the University of California – San Francisco’s Klein laboratory, wrote of D’Souza in a 2010 AADR mentoring award nomination.

It reads: “She finds joy by helping others realize the thrill of scientific discovery.”