Bulletin of Dental Education

New Undergraduate Research Program Emphasizes Health Inequities

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Undergraduate students from across the country dove into oral health data this summer in a new research program called Biomedical Informatics and Behavioral Sciences (BIBS) at Texas A&M University School of Dentistry (Texas A&M Dentistry).

Funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the program gives students tools to analyze data, connect it to behavioral sciences and use their findings to better understand the oral health care needs of specific populations, and the reasons for disparities in care. Texas A&M Dentistry Assistant Professor Peggy Timothé, D.D.S., M.P.H., is the program director.

“My goal is to ultimately develop students who are not only interested in dentistry as a career, but specifically dental public health,” said Dr. Timothé, who also leads the school’s public health residency. “This summer we’ve had a variety of different speakers to talk about dental public health research, careers as an oral health researcher and issues in dental public health such as health inequities and barriers to oral health care.”  

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In total, five undergraduates, four predental students and one premedical student, participated in the inaugural nine-week program. In addition to attending weekly lectures with guest speakers, students took a mini course in biostatistics taught by faculty at Texas A&M University in College Station and worked on individual research projects with the guidance of a research mentor. They presented their research projects in early August at the Summer Undergraduate Research Poster Session at Texas A&M.

Taylor Butler, a senior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, NC, was drawn to the program to study the disparities in oral health care.

“With this program being more bioinformatics and research based, I wanted to see how that could help and better serve underserved communities,” she said.

Dr. Timothé explained “bioinformatics” is a relatively new term used to describe the advanced analysis of biostatistics in pre-existing datasets to determine the cause of certain health issues in specific populations. Texas A&M Dentistry was one of 15 bioinformatics summer programs funded by the NLM, but it was the only one studying oral health data.

Irene Jun, a senior at Claremont McKenna College in California, said coming into the program she was aware of some disparities in care, but now she better understands the depths of those differences.

“I knew there were different components affecting underserved communities and their access to public health, and oral health in particular, but through this program, I’ve learned about how complicated it is,” she said. “There are many factors and layers intertwined.”

This was Dr. Timothé’s aim for the program.

“I want these students to leave here knowing how much work it takes to promote oral health for everyone in this country,” she said. “I hope they recognize that we have a lot of unmet need that is typically unseen.”

The BIBS program was funded for five years at $125,000 each year. Applications for the 2024 program will open in January.

Courtesy of the Texas A&M University School of Dentistry

Published on September 13, 2023

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