Friday, July 7, 2017

Biting into Research: Research Experience with Craniofacial and Dental Genetics

Like some of the genetic counseling students from years past, I am a graduate student worker at the Center for Craniofacial and DentalGenetics (CCDG), part of the School of Dental Medicine here at Pitt. My first experience with the CCDG was through the Summer Institute for Training in Biostatistics, when I was able to work with data from the first cohort study of the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia (COHRA1). Currently, I am a research assistant for the second cohort of the study, Factors Contributing to Oral Health Disparities in Appalachia(COHRA2). The goal of these studies is to examine the genetic, environmental, behavioral, and microbial components of the disproportionately increasing rate of dental caries, or cavities, in children in Appalachia, a region in the eastern United States spanning from western New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. We are looking specifically at children in Northern Appalachia, from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as they demonstrate a high level of poor oral health with elevated rates of caries early in life.
A map depicting the Appalachian region of the United States.

My job involves working with a team of other research assistants and dental hygienists to perform study visits and maintain contact with the research participants. Collaborators at West Virginia University also carry out these visits, with West Virginia being the only state entirely within the Appalachian region. Female participants were able to enroll when they were in their first or second trimester of pregnancy and we are now following the mother and baby pairs up to the baby’s 6th birthday, with visits at specific times throughout the years.  The visits involve collecting saliva and other oral samples from the mothers and babies enrolled in the study for DNA and microbial environment analysis. We also document the child’s growth and survey behavioral, environmental, psychosocial, and socioeconomic factors of the mothers, both at the visits and with short and long phone interviews at other times of the year. Other aspects of my position involve helping with general office duties and processing the samples received at both sites for subsequent analysis.

Center for Craniofacial & Dental Genetics logo.
A significant benefit of my position is the wealth and breadth of data available from which I can develop my thesis project, which is allowing me to make it a project I really enjoy. I have a strong interest in cardiovascular health, so I am currently looking into developing a thesis project that examines the possible genetic link between heart disease, hypertension, and periodontitis. Research has shown that there may be a similar underlying inflammation process in these diseases and, through CCDG-lead studies and collaborations throughout the years, there is extensive data I can use to further study this connection.

Although I was not sure how relevant it would be when I began, this position has helped me cultivate my genetic counseling skills. Conducting the study visits has facilitated my comfort with patient interaction and adapting to changing situations, as patients and sessions can be unpredictable, just like the toddlers we see. Through the phone interviews we conduct with the mothers to track the diets and general health of their babies, I have also developed my ability to go through series of seemingly random questions in a targeted manner to stay on topic, like is necessary when collecting personal and family medical histories.

For these reasons, and many more, I have really appreciated the experiences and opportunities I have had while at the CCDG and am excited to continue working here through the rest of my time at Pitt!

-- Julia Verbiar, Class of 2018

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