Dental Students Get a Taste of Research at NIH

June 2012

One-year program offers exposure to bench-to-bedside research


Dental students Helen Fassil and Jeff Tsai

When Jeff Tsai and Helen Fassil entered dental school, the goal for each was to graduate and set up a private practice. But after a one-year program at the NIH, the two students are thinking about adding research to their careers.

Tsai and Fassil, fourth-year students at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, are participants in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP), a one-year program that allows dental, medical, and osteopathic students a chance to conduct mentored research at the NIH. (The CRTP has since been restructured and renamed the Medical Research Scholars Program [MRSP] to blend the CRTP and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-NIH Research Scholars Program).

“I have to admit the program has made enough of an impact where I feel I probably want to go into academia,” says Tsai. “It’s surprising to me because at least in my opinion, there are not a lot of dental students who think about academia and I didn’t expect that to happen to me either, but I feel like the program has had a very positive effect.” Tsai is now considering a residency in oral surgery that includes research.

“Prior to starting the program, I was certain that I wanted to do private practice,” says Fassil. “Having had this experience at NIH, I realize that I can do both research and clinical work. Research is something I really enjoy and I’d like to try to incorporate it professionally as a clinician scientist.” Fassil is applying for a residency in pediatric dentistry that includes research.

From Bench to Clinic

“If we want all the science supported by NIH and other organizations to find its way into the clinic, we need people on both the research and clinical sides,” says Dr. Bruce Baum, director of the MRSP and a former NIDCR researcher. “And we need people in dentistry all along the research continuum,” he said. “Dental science is generally excellent, but that science has to translate into the clinic. The MRSP encompasses laboratory, translational, and clinical research, and is designed to give students an opportunity to appreciate all aspects of biomedical research.”

Jeff Tsai

Jeff Tsai is seeing the research continuum firsthand. His mentor is Dr. Michael Collins, an endocrinologist who studies bone metabolism diseases and conditions. One such condition is fibrous dysplasia of bone, which is characterized by areas of abnormal growth or lesions in one or many bones. Tsai is usually in the lab, where his group is studying a protein expressed in fibrous dysplasia bone marrow stromal cells, and looking at how a specific drug affects those cells. But he is also in the clinic. “If there is an interesting patient coming to either the dental clinic or the endocrine clinic, I drop what I’m doing and go; it’s invaluable to see how they approach patients here and to learn from that for when I see patients in the future.” Tsai is also working in the dental clinic with a clinician-researcher who is studying trichothiodystrophy, a rare disorder that affects the ectodermal tissues. The group is trying to determine if the oral cavity offers clues as to what separates these patients diagnostically.

Helen Fassil

Helen Fassil works with Dr. Steven Pavletic, a cancer researcher who is studying chronic Graft-versus-Host-Disease (GVHD), including its oral manifestations. Her recent project, she says, was “a lot of data mining” for a paper out of the GVHD group. But she, too, is in the clinic and is assisting one of the researchers with oral biopsies. One thing that has impressed her is the way the disciplines work together. “There are many different fields of research at the NIH, but, it’s the collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to discovery that sets the NIH apart,” she says. The GVHD group includes specialists from several fields including dermatology and rheumatology who meet each week to share how the specialty relates to the patient. “It’s important that there’s an oral specialist or dental presence in the research world. There are things we can bring to the table that other health care professionals might not be aware of.” In GVHD, for example, oral symptoms may go unnoticed by physicians. “So having that multidisciplinary exchange of information is huge,” she says.

Go for it!

And what advice do Fassil and Tsai have for dental students thinking about applying to the program? Go for it, they say. “It’s a positive experience and you’re encouraged to be creative and productive, and it’s just a very nurturing environment where it’s impossible not to grow,” says Fassil. “I work with a team that is really supportive but they also push me to take the initiative and to create projects that are important to me. It’s been a great experience.”

“If you already have that curiosity, it’s imperative that you explore it and I feel like this program is the best opportunity to do that,” says Tsai. “On top of that, I’d have to say that you have to be ready to push yourself beyond the curriculum that you’ve been taught. You have to draw information from many different sources and think about your own project. It’s not an insurmountable task, but it’s formidable, so I would say be ready to push yourself.”

Fassil says, “As a dental student it can be really intimidating to think about taking a year off, but it’s worth the experience.” She adds, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I know we haven’t been on the other side yet, but even if the transition is a bit bumpy, it’s worth it.”

Bruce Baum, D.M.D.

Dr. Bruce Baum, director of the MRSP

“The CRTP, and now the MRSP, is a challenging program, but it’s really superb,” says Dr. Baum. “And I can assure you that everybody involved wants the students to succeed. Every student can decide — ‘Do I want an academic career, do I want to do research, go into private practice?’ If you have an inkling to try research, this is a great way to be nurtured.”

And Fassil and Tsai agree that, even if they eventually opt for private practice, they’ve learned important lessons that can be applied anywhere. Says Fassil, “Going back to the collaborative idea, it’s important to be aware of the dynamics of the team and recognize that each person brings a valuable experience,” she says. “My experience here has given me a new appreciation for the importance of collaboration.”

“One of the biggest advantages of the program is learning to be critical of what you read and what you see and even your own data and what you produce,” says Tsai. “You look for flaws and you correct them. I think that probably applies to anything.”

Adds Dr. Baum, “I think someone who goes through a solid year of research training is going to be a better thinker, ergo a better clinician whether they choose a research career or not. You have to become a critical thinker in the MRSP, if you are not one already.” He adds, “At the end of the day, as patients, most of us want to be treated by a clinician who is a critical thinker.”

For more information, an application, and answers to FAQs, visit the Medical Research Scholars Program page.

MRSP director Dr. Bruce Baum can be reached at: or 301-594-1193

Last Reviewed
July 2018