Integrating oral and general health is essential
September / October 2022 | Volume 21 Number 5
Photo courtesy of NICDRDr. Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque
Dr. Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque, deputy director of the
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), earned her DDS from SUNY Buffalo and her Ph.D. in microbiology/immunology from the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill. She served on the faculty at the UNC schools of dentistry and medicine for more than two decades. Her research has explored potential causes for salivary gland disease in patients living with HIV and evaluated the oral microbiome’s impact on cancer-causing viruses and HIV outcomes. Since 2004, she’s led the UNC-Malawi project, which helped establish that nation’s first dental school in 2019.
Q&A with Dr. Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque
What inspired you to become a scientist?
As a child, I was always a very curious person, but I never entertained being a scientist because I didn't really have an example. The one person I was aware of was George Washington Carver, and then my older sister became a nurse, so I decided I would do something health related.
At college, I focused on becoming a doctor but then I read “The Unkindest Cut” by Marcia Millman and I recognized I would not be a good person to tell someone their loved one is dying or “we don’t know what to do.” So, I started to look for other professions and did a lot of volunteering and work study. One job, cleaning dishes in the laboratory, included some science project work during the summer and a volunteer position with a dentist in Buffalo led to a dental assistant’s job. That’s when I discovered that I really liked dentistry.
I pursued research because I knew it would be a tool to answer questions about diseases with unknown causes. My focus in the dental scientist program at UNC was Oral Medicine Hospital Dentistry, which is basically general dentistry for people who are medically complex, such as patients with cancer or HIV or hemophilia. You treat them in the hospital, you take a sample or biopsy, go to the lab, work on it and then hopefully bring back some information to help the patient. That's what I've been doing for the last couple of decades.
What do you enjoy most about your work? I enjoy seeing patients. It's like Christmas when you deliver new dentures to someone or when you relieve their pain. There's a win in that.But at the same time there’s huge gratification in what you learn at the bench and take back to a patient—this is why my career has progressed on parallel tracks.
For me, science is a tool. I used to believe that scientists were these [she gestures indicating a person standing on a pedestal]. But now I realize that everybody who asks a question is a scientist—a scientist is somebody who really wants to know the answer.
What do people need to know about oral health?
Oral health is essential and can be the genesis of other health problems, yet it has been overlooked. Think about it: your communication, your nutrition, your portal to every other organ is your mouth, yet oral health has mainly been touted as white teeth. They are pretty and what you show the world is important, but there's so much more there, right? Oral health is a barometer for what's happening elsewhere in your body. If you take saliva, you can measure many diseases at distant sites. Who wouldn't want to give spit instead of getting a needle? It’s easier and safer.
Oral cancers are a major problem. Virus-associated cancers cause more than 70% of head and neck cancers in the U.S., which is more than alcohol- or tobacco-related cancers. One challenge for our field—and this is something we're working on—is building the evidence base with large enough studies to be able to demonstrate linkages to various diseases. I think as those studies grow, we will be able to see many direct connections, just as we’ve seen between oral health and cardiovascular disease.
What do you hope to accomplish at NIH?
The most common disease in the whole world is tooth decay (dental caries), which is preventable. This past December, the Oral Health in America report clearly showed that disparities remain a major issue, despite technological advances. So, I would like to address disparities nationally and globally. Part of that is getting prevention messaging out there and helping to build capacity.
We need to integrate oral and general health; we need to diversify the workforce so that dentists look like the populations they treat; and we need to translate and implement what we've learned through research, because so much of what we know has never made it to the patient. As NIDCR’s deputy director, my potential impact is much larger now. Beyond a single patient or small group, I will be able to make programmatic changes, promote other people's science, and help build training programs across the nation. Alongside Fogarty, I hope to make a difference globally as well.
What challenges did you face?
As a person of color in the U.S., the expectations for what I could be were often low. My guidance counselor told me, “You’re not going to be a doctor.” In college, my pre-health advisor said, “Maybe you should focus on social science.” When I got to dental school, it was: “What are you doing here? You’re taking a man's seat.” As a dentist, it was: “Where’s the doctor, when is he coming in?” These days, when I’m at scientific meetings, it’s “Who do you work for?” and my lab associate, who happens to be a white man, often has to inform people, “She's the PI (principal investigator)”
Despite some adversity, my parents were always encouraging, and I always believed that we're all called to do something, and we need to do what we can to get there. Eventually, we can try to make it easier for someone else. I have been very fortunate. This career has allowed me to go around the world and meet colleagues from all over the place and see that we’re more similar than we are different.
Updated October 13, 2022
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