ECU dental school marks annual celebration of research and scholarship

The East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine held its ninth annual Celebration of Research and Scholarship (CORAS) Feb. 7, showcasing student, resident and faculty research and welcoming two keynote speakers who spoke to the event’s theme, “AI in the Dental World.”

ECU School of Dental Medicine pediatric resident Christian Penister presents his research to attendees of the school’s Celebration of Research and Scholarship on Feb. 7. (Photos by Rhett Butler)

More than 50 research posters dotted the Ross Hall rotunda throughout the morning while the researchers stood by to explain their methods and findings to visitors from the school, university and other institutions.

The event is one of the school’s central traditions, honoring research as a key part of its mission and vision.

Dr. Margaret Wilson, vice dean and interim associate dean for student affairs, welcomed visitors and participants to the event and emphasized the importance of research and scholarship to the ultimate benefit of patients.

“It’s important that we pause and reflect on the opportunities that we all have as educators and learners to improve oral health and overall health for all communities,” she said. “Research plays an essential role in improving oral health — and in order to make progress and create new knowledge, we need to have dedicated faculty who are involved in research, engaged in scholarly activities and committed to inspiring curious students and residents, enabling and encouraging them to develop a passion for discovery.”

Dr. Sharon Paynter, ECU’s acting chief research and engagement officer, said the event is part of the university’s growing research enterprise.

“Last year, the university recorded more than $85 million in sponsored activities — an all-time record,” she said. “We are investing in startup packages, high-impact experiential learning for students who participate in research efforts, catalyzing research teams and ideas, high-performance computing resources and other critical research infrastructure. The ways that the School of Dental Medicine has engaged in that growth and investment strategy is evident at events like this one. It is through events like CORAS that the magic happens.”

Dr. Alexandre Vieira, the school’s associate dean for research, said that research should be considered an essential part of dental education.

“Research should be in the fabric of everything we do,” he said, from education to serving as clinicians to making a difference in communities. “We are part of the same mission.”

Keynote speakers were Dr. Donald A. Tyndall, professor of diagnostic sciences at UNC Chapel Hill’s Adams School of Dentistry, who presented “AI and Diagnostic Imaging in Dentistry: A Rising Tide That Lifts All Boats,” and Dr. Jin Xiao, associate professor and director of perinatal oral health at the University of Rochester’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health, who presented “Smart Connected Oral Health Community (SMART Teeth): Using AI and Digital Technologies to Close the Gap in Oral Health Disparity.”

ECU student Lucy Anna Sheaffer explains her research during the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s 9th annual Celebration of Research and Scholarship Feb. 7.

Students and faculty also received awards during the event, including the following honors:

  • Case Reports: Areej Hussein
  • Clinical Research: Asha Sude
  • Community/Epidemiology Research: Lucy Anna Sheaffer
  • Basic & Materials Research: DaQuan Mebane
  • Scholarship of Teaching/Mentoring: Dr. Michael Webb
  • People’s Choice Award: Markus Mosley
  • Hinman Research Symposium Award: DaQuan Mebane
  • SCADA Award: Liam Hopfensperger
  • AADOCR Research Day Award: Markus Mosley

Lisa Finch, office manager in the Office of Research and CORAS organizer, said the event underlines the importance of research as part of dental education.

“Research is simply important; it is important for the overall health of our community,” she said. “This is part of our mission to lead the nation in community-based oral health education, research, patient care and service. It is important for the school to celebrate student research because our students and residents are the next generation that will continue to build upon the blocks of our health and well-being.”

Dental students shared their thoughts on the value of research and CORAS as part of their dental education.

“The acknowledgment not only affirmed our hard work but also highlighted the effectiveness of our presentation in capturing the audience’s attention and interest. Winning these honors provided a sense of accomplishment and inspired us to continue striving for excellence in our academic pursuits,” said Mosley of being honored with awards for his work, alongside co-author and dental student Erika Stevens. “Being the first time presenting our findings, we were slightly anxious about communicating with our dean, faculty and peers. To our pleasant surprise, after all the hours of planning with Dr. (Wenjian) Zhang, we demonstrated our aptitude for delivering insightful research with unwavering confidence and enthusiasm, showcasing a profound mastery of the subject matter.”

Mebane said the opportunity to research alongside faculty offers unprecedented experiences.

“The opportunity to share my findings on hypertension, a topic that intersects with dental health in significant ways, with peers and mentors was both an honor and a learning experience,” said Mebane, class of 2027. “Oral health has an inextricable connection to systemic health. A large part of the mission of our dental school is to serve the underserved rural areas of North Carolina. Older age is a major factor that increases the odds of developing hypertension, making a deeper understanding of this condition invaluable for us as future clinicians.

I.J. Okons, a member of the class of 2025, has presented her research every year since starting dental school.

“It provided an opportunity to showcase the culmination of our efforts and present our findings to a broader audience,” Okons said. “It’s also gratifying to see our work acknowledged and appreciated, especially knowing that it has the potential to make a positive impact on prenatal oral health education for pregnant women and their prenatal providers. Research is crucial for me as a future dentist because it allows me to stay actively engaged of emerging technologies and advancements in dentistry. It empowers me to engage with the community and comprehend the impact of our efforts on prenatal oral health education for both expecting mothers and their prenatal providers.”