Educator Spotlight: Dr. Donald R. Nixdorf

By Nicole Fauteux 

“I used to complain that the amount and quality of research on orofacial pain were low and poor. Then one day my division head said, ‘Why don't you do something about it?’”

Dr. Donald R. Nixdorf
So began the journey of one academic dentist who started as a clinical educator, became a clinical researcher, and now works to facilitate the research of others on a national scale. The vehicle propelling this young investigator to his current destination: the dental practice-based research network.

Dr. Donald R. Nixdorf is Associate Professor and Director of the Advanced Education Program in Orofacial Pain at the University of Minnesota. In 2005, he responded to a challenge by Dr. Eric L. Schiffman, Director of the Division of Temporomandibular Disorders and Orofacial Pain, by attending a six-week summer research institute at the University of Washington. There Dr. Nixdorf learned about new research networks from Dr. Timothy A. DeRouen, Network Chair and Principal Investigator of Northwest PRECEDENT (Practice-based REsearch Collaborative in Evidence-based DENTistry), one of three regional forerunners of the current National Dental Practice-Based Research Network (National Dental PBRN).

When Dr. Nixdorf shared his excitement about the networks with his wife, a practicing dentist at Minnesota-based HealthPartners Dental Group and Clinics, she replied, “Oh, I’m part of that.” 

“The husband is always the last to know,” Dr. Nixdorf jokes.

Optimistic about developing a line of epidemiologic research regarding pain following common dental procedures, Dr. Nixdorf joined the same regional network and submitted a research proposal. Despite initial skepticism from some of his academic colleagues, performing such research within a practice-based network seemed to make sense and he pushed forward. 

“Once I joined the network, I started understanding all the benefits,” says Dr. Nixdorf. “Rather than creating a separate infrastructure for each research project, the network provides an established infrastructure for this type of research. You can ask bigger questions, and these have the potential to impact patient care faster and to a larger degree.”

After Dr. Nixdorf became engaged with the network, he says the collaboration was so positive and effective that “it started picking up steam on its own.”

He performed two more studies in the network and used his research as the basis for a Master of Science in clinical research. There’s no doubt in his mind that network involvement has been pivotal in his career.

“Being able to put the epidemiological research methods I was learning to use and figure out immediately how to implement them was important for me,” he says. “I've been able to get a lot more done than I thought I'd be able to this early in my career.” 

Dr. Nixdorf believes the network can be an immense resource for other young investigators as well. The network provides exposure to people with a wide range of expertise and can help researchers refine their ideas. His advice to those considering getting on board?

“Vote with your feet and join the National Dental PBRN. Contact your regional director or deputy director and start a conversation about what you’re interested in.”

If you live in the network’s Midwest Region, that person might just be Dr. Nixdorf. He was asked to serve as Deputy Director of the network’s Midwest Region last year. Bringing others on board seemed like the logical next step in Dr. Nixdorf’s academic career, so he seized the opportunity to pass along the mentoring he had received. 

“I got into academia to improve the profession, and serving as Deputy Director for the Midwest Region seems like the best vehicle available to me now to do this.” 

 The network certainly seems to have offered him a great ride thus far.