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Educator Spotlight: Sharon Gordon

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By Nicole Fauteux

Sharon Gordon SmallSharon Gordon, D.D.S., M.P.H., Ph.D., became the inaugural research dean at East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine (ECU SDM) two years after the school opened in the summer of 2011. The Associate Dean for Research and Chair of Foundational Sciences spoke with the CCI Liaison Ledger about the steps she has taken to help ECU SDM establish its research enterprise and the factors other schools might want to consider as they initiate or build up their own research programs.

Q:  ECU SDM is best known for its focus on preparing students to care for the underserved and for its innovative approach to community-based clinical education. Where does research come in?

A:  Research has been part of the plan for the dental school since the beginning. As a part of the University of North Carolina system, ECU is striving to improve its research infrastructure, and the dental school is part of that plan. In fact, in the new dental school building, Ross Hall [Ledyard E. Ross Hall], which is about three years old, there is a clinical research clinic with six operatories and a specimen-preparation area so one can go from chairside to benchside, so to speak. The building was also constructed with a fourth floor that was left as a shell for future research labs, which are now under construction.

Q:  How can schools that want to establish or beef up their research programs get started?

A:  My approach has been to use the accreditation process to help drive what we are doing. The standards state that students must have an opportunity to be exposed to research and faculty must be engaged in scholarly activity. One of the first things I did was to take an inventory of research interest among faculty and students to find out what they were already doing; then, I built the momentum by focusing on the students first. We formed a student research group, which is now affiliated with the American Association for Dental Research through its National Student Research Group. The student group’s interest in having journal clubs and getting faculty involved created traction, and when faculty saw there was a critical mass of students interested in research, that built more momentum.

When I was with NIDCR [the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research], I had the opportunity to visit a majority of dental schools. I always found that there was a grassroots interest in research and that you just needed to put some infrastructure in place to foster that interest. That’s what I’ve been trying to do here.

Key Takeaways Gordon Fall 2015Q:  ECU SDM is building its research enterprise from the ground up. Where are you in this process, and what are your immediate and long-term goals?

A:  Our immediate short-term plan has been to build an infrastructure. I formed a research and scholarship committee comprising representatives from all the dental school departments, and we’ve worked to include the dental school in the systems already in place at ECU to support research.

In the clinical research clinic, the first thing I did was to hire a clinical research coordinator, a grant coordinator and an administrative assistant to provide support to faculty and students. We’re now building out the fourth floor research space. We’ve spent the last year and a half in the planning and design phase, and we just had a construction bid accepted. We’ll commence building this summer.

In tandem with that, we’re pursuing faculty hiring and development. We’re in a ramp-up stage, and anyone who looks at the ADEA website will see a lot of faculty positions advertised for ECU School of Dental Medicine. 

For the long term, we’re starting strategic planning with the university and our outside partners, such as state and county public health departments, to plan our research blueprint, if you will. Part of that will be leveraging the research interests that exist on campus. For example, we’re one of the few universities to have a dental school and a school of engineering on the same campus, so that is a natural partnership and it dovetails with some of our faculty’s interest in engineering new biomaterials. Our fourth floor will have a lab where materials science and bioengineering can be conducted so that’s a win, not only for us, but for our partners in the school of engineering.

We are also tying the eight community service learning centers (CSLCs) we have distributed throughout the state to our research plan. For more information on the CSLCs, where ECU predoctoral dental students spend half of their fourth year providing care, see the fall 2014 issue of the CCI Liaison Ledger. We’re already starting to conduct health services and health disparities research. In our fourth-floor labs, we’re building in a specimen accessioning system so we can collect samples from patients at the CSLCs and send those samples to Ross Hall, and we will have a way of cataloging and storing and analyzing those samples in conjunction with clinical information. For example, we may want to test systems for early detection of oral cancer, which may entail collecting saliva or buccal cells in conjunction with screening for other types of risk factors.

Because the CSLCs are all tied to one electronic health record that we use in our clinic, we also have a database that can be a very powerful population-based research engine. 

It affords us the opportunity not only to research ways of improving access to care and of looking at risk factors to help with prevention, but also to evaluate whether we’re accomplishing our mission as a dental school. Is there a change in oral health status that we can measure? Are our graduates populating those portions of the state that have a low dentist-to-population ratio? 

Q:  You previously served as Director of Graduate Research and Training at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. Which lessons learned in that research-intensive environment have guided you in shaping ECU SDM’s program?

A: When you design your fiscal sustainability model, don’t pin it on state or federal dollars; especially don’t plan that government-derived research dollars are going to help you maintain your budget. Over a decade ago, when the NIH [National Institutes of Health] had its funding doubled, a lot of institutions hired research faculty with the idea that they’d be able to focus on bringing in research dollars. In today’s climate, especially in a small developing school, one can’t afford to have faculty who are only focusing on one thing. 

Hiring faculty who are strictly research and others who are strictly clinical also creates an “us vs. them” type of environment. Although none of us can be a perfect triple threat, I think we all have to be educators, and if we can all appreciate research and clinical care, doing so builds a culture of appreciation in the school.

Q: What are the biggest challenges dental schools face in establishing and building research programs?

A:  Every school engaged in a biomedical enterprise has a challenge with research funding and faculty effort. Whenever you have a decrease in funding streams, whether those be research or otherwise, that puts more pressure on faculty to do more with less time. That’s a big challenge that everyone recognizes. 

The other challenge is faculty retention—not just nationwide, but globally. Because of the greying of faculty, more institutions are trying to retain their existing faculty and delay their retirements. This is a challenge we all need to recognize, and we need to try to work together to come up with some creative solutions.

Q: Are there particular research opportunities that are perhaps more readily accessible to newer schools than to those with established research programs? 

A: The opportunity I see for newer schools is that they were authorized with a certain goal, to meet a certain need, so presumably they have a niche cut out for them already. In the case of ECU, our focus on the underserved and our innovative educational model naturally provide opportunities for research in two areas: the outcomes of the education model and the outcomes of our effort to improve access to dental care. That’s why we focused on health disparities, population-based research, health services and educational research—because it’s aligned with the mission. The research also serves as an evaluation of our institutional effectiveness to show that we’re meeting our mission.

Q: What other advice would you offer dental schools that want to build a research enterprise?
A: Even if you have grassroots interest, to build and sustain a research enterprise, you have to have the institutional commitment. Research involves resources—faculty release time, student release time from the curriculum, means to engage in national meetings, faculty hiring and the resources needed to conduct research. If you want the institutional commitment, you have to be mission-focused, because if institutional leaders believe you’re helping them achieve their mission, they’re more likely to be engaged in helping you to help them achieve that mission. 

Q: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you would like to answer?
A:  I have a question for my colleagues in other dental schools. How can we all work together to strengthen research across our dental schools? It would be nice if people would respond to that on the Liaison Ledger blog. Then we could all connect with each other. (Readers can submit comments in the space provided at the end of each CCI Liaison Ledger article.)

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