Dental Students Step Into Scientists' Shoes

Pursuing yearlong investigations under NIH’s Medical Research Scholars Program

Every weekday morning for the past year, dental students Jason Berglund and John Le depart their dorm-like residence on the NIH campus, walk 5 minutes to their respective labs in NIDCR’s Building 30, and dive into the day’s tasks. These could include surgically implanting bone marrow cells into mice, examining tumor cells under a microscope, collecting tumor samples from human patients in the operating room, or attending case conferences to plan patient care.

Jason Berglund, second from left, with (from left to right) Susan Leitman, MD, MRSP program director; Michael Collins, MD; and Bruce Baum, DMD, PhD, Berglund's MRSP advisor.
Jason Berglund, Susan Leitman, Michael Collins, and Bruce Baum.

For the past year, Berglund and Le have led lives more typical of postdoctoral researchers than third-year dental students. As participants in the competitive NIH Medical Research Scholars Program (MRSP), Berglund and Le, along with 50 medical students from across the country, have paused their traditional schooling for a year to live and work at NIH. It’s an opportunity to launch biomedical research projects and pursue scientific questions of interest.

Through a yearlong, research-oriented mentorship, these students conduct research across the full spectrum of science toward the ultimate goal of improving public health. In addition, the MRSP scholars participate in courses, journal club seminars, a structured lecture series, and clinical teaching rounds. They also present their research to the NIH community and at professional conferences.

“The MRSP provides us with the time and opportunity to focus on a research question,” says Berglund. “The ability to develop and own a project is a critical part of the scientific process, and it’s given me a much better idea of what a research career would look like.”

Berglund, who came to MRSP after completing his third year of dental school at Tufts University, has been working in the lab of Michael Collins, MD, chief of the Section on Skeletal Disorders and Mineral Homeostasis at NIDCR.

Berglund was drawn to research because of the intellectual stimulation and potential to improve patients’ lives. “One of the best parts is interacting with and bouncing ideas off colleagues from multiple disciplines and learning new ways of thinking and expressing yourself,” he says. “And being able to work on projects that can benefit patients in the future is an honor.”

Image of John Le standing in a laboratory next to a microscope.
John Le's research explores how aging affects bone regeneration. Credit: Jeremy Figueroa-Ortiz

For his main project, Berglund has been exploring the origin of tumor-induced osteomalacia, a rare disease characterized by benign tumors that overproduce a hormone called fibroblast growth factor 23. The condition leads to bone pain, fractures, and muscle weakness. Under an NIDCR clinical study, Berglund’s mentor Dr. Collins developed a method to locate these typically hard-to-find tumors so that they can be surgically removed. Once the tumors are excised, researchers in Collins’ lab collect samples to further study how the disease develops.

In a subset of patients, the tumors are thought to arise from a genetic glitch in the process by which immature precursor cells give rise to mature bone cells. Berglund has been exploring this hypothesis, probing tumor cells for molecular and genetic signposts that help trace their developmental origins. The markers he’s characterized could be used as treatment targets in future studies.

Le’s project addresses bone from a different angle, exploring how it repairs itself after injury. Le previously studied skin wound healing and head and neck cancer in a lab at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, where he is a rising fourth-year dental student. He saw his MRSP year as an opportunity to broaden his research repertoire beyond soft tissues to bone. “Wherever I continue my research in the future, I’ll have the advantage of having a breadth of knowledge about wound healing, skin, cancer, and bone,” he explains.

Le has been working in the lab of Janice Lee, DDS, MD, MS, chief of the Craniofacial Anomalies and Regeneration Section and clinical research director at NIDCR. Le’s research focuses on defining how age affects bone’s ability to regenerate after injury. He has been transplanting bone marrow stromal cells—which can turn into mature bone cells—into old and young mice. Examining the transplants for age-related differences in bone formation and protein and gene expression might yield insights into why bone regeneration and repair is more effective in younger people. Le’s work could lay the groundwork for using bone marrow stromal cell transplantation as a therapeutic approach in patients with bone defects, non-healing fractures, and age-associated skeletal diseases.

Both Berglund and Le view their year at NIH as an invaluable learning experience, especially as future dental clinician-researchers. Their engagement with MRSP inspired them to spread the word to their colleagues about the importance of dental research.

“To continue to advance the dental profession, we need to invest in research and scientific training,” Berglund says. “The materials, procedures, and interventions we use as dentists were developed at a lab bench. To improve these interventions and develop better materials, we need a better foundational understanding of dentistry.”

Le agrees, and has been doing his part, including helping to recruit dental students for the next MRSP class. “It’s important to communicate the appealing and rewarding aspects of research and an academic path to dental students,” Le says. His appeals may have paid off. The incoming 2017-2018 MRSP class once again includes two dental students.

In the fall of 2017, Le and Berglund will return to their respective dental schools to complete their fourth years. After that, both plan to apply to residency programs for oral and maxillofacial surgery, and both foresee careers as surgeon-researchers.

How to Apply

Students interested in participating in the 2018-2019 cycle of the Medical Scholars Research Program may submit applications beginning October 1, 2017, through January 12, 2018. Candidates must be currently enrolled in an accredited medical, dental, or veterinary program. Access more information.

Last Reviewed
July 2018

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