NIDCR fellows strive to improve oral health for all
By Tiffany Chen
October 24, 2022
As practicing dentists, Ishita Singh, B.D.S., M.P.H., and Leah Leinbach, D.M.D., M.P.H., have seen smiles in all shapes. From caring for children with special needs to treating oral infections in patients preparing for invasive heart surgeries, they’re experts at tackling oral health problems. Given their wholistic views of patient care, both dentists recognized issues outside of the mouth that made their patients vulnerable to oral diseases. These observations, and their desire to address oral health challenges on a community level, led them to join NIDCR’s newly expanded Dental Public Health Research Fellowship program.
Singh, who is originally from India and most recently worked as an oral health researcher in Utah, noticed that factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, race and ethnicity, and environmental toxins weighed on the oral health of her patients.
Leinbach, who previously provided hospital-based oral health care at two large academic medical centers in the US, realized that financial barriers and limited access to information about oral health made it difficult for many of her patients to be truly healthy.
“My patients were going right back into the same routine and environment that contributed to oral health problems in the first place,” said Leinbach. “So I thought there was an opportunity to tackle the problems from a different perspective—through dental public health.”
Rather than treating individual patients, dental public health practitioners focus on preventing oral diseases and promoting oral health in communities through surveillance, research, public health education campaigns, policy development, and dental care programs.
As the inaugural cohort of the revamped NIDCR program, the two dentist-scientists will learn how to tackle system-wide challenges faced by their patients. The fellowship is designed to equip dental professionals with the knowledge and skills to carry out population-level research aimed at improving the oral health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Fellows complete a one-year dental public health residency followed by a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship.
As part of their training, Singh and Leinbach will visit federal and nonprofit public health organizations to learn about the various types of work within the field. They will also embed with an organization of their choice to gain practical experience in community-level research and program implementation.
Singh, who seeks to reduce oral health disparities, wants to better serve patients from groups that have been socially marginalized, such as those with special needs and those from the LGBTQ+ community.
Leinbach is especially interested in integrating oral health care with the broader health care system through policy and management.
Singh and Leinbach aim to come out of the program as board-certified dental public health specialists and establish themselves as independent researchers. A few months into the program, they’re already benefiting from NIDCR’s resources and are excited about their prospects.
“We received training on how to do a literature search one week into the program, and that’s something I was never formally taught but was often expected to know,” said Singh. In addition to research skills, the program focuses on fellows’ professional development by offering communications and leadership training. “That speaks a lot about the training provided by NIH—there is an immense potential of expanding your knowledge and skillset. You’re at a place where you can truly make an impact,” Singh said.
As the newest members of NIDCR’s community, they have another asset to tap into—a lineage of NIDCR-trained dental public health professionals. Singh and Leinbach have been able to connect with them for career advice, insights into their research, and more.
“The environment and people are really important for career growth, and we’re surrounded by the best at NIDCR,” said Leinbach. “Over the past two years, we’ve all lived through a public health emergency and witnessed the power of institutions and the public’s faith in them. It’s really an honor to be here to help shape the future of oral health and health in general.”
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