Suchitra Nelson never intended to study dental problems. In fact, she didn’t even realize the field involved her specialty of epidemiology, or the study of patterns, causes and effects of health conditions.
But as Nelson was completing her PhD at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, she learned the School of Dental Medicine was seeking someone who could do that type of work.
With the timing just right, Nelson joined the dental school’s faculty to fill that void.
“It was a huge eye-opener that you could do research and epidemiological research for dental problems,” said Nelson, a professor of community dentistry.
Nearly 24 years later, not only has Nelson realized the impact epidemiological research can have in dental medicine, she’s also brought the results of her studies to the Cleveland community.
In that time, Nelson frequently has been recognized for the value of her work and, most recently, she was appointed the school’s assistant dean for clinical and translational research.
“For a long time, I’ve been doing clinical research, so I think I bring to the school some level of experience to take on the responsibility,” Nelson said. “I started from scratch right here. It took me 10 years to actually develop this area. It takes time to do it, but also we need a person who can bring the experience to this role to help other faculty and staff.”
In this new role, Nelson will work with researchers to help them take their studies from the bench to the bedside and to the community. The goal: to ensure that the latest research in dental medicine reaches its full potential to help as many people as possible.
To do that, she will focus on the school’s needs, identify resources and funding opportunities and streamline efforts within the school.
“We have to have the mind power to do this kind of research, so we have to train [researchers] and help them—there are many things we can do,” she said. “It can’t happen overnight; it’s a process.”
Nelson’s own research has focused on eliminating disparities in underserved patients, especially the elderly and children—populations in which the gaps in care are more pronounced.
More specifically, Nelson has researched cavity prevention in children, studying how the sugar substitute xylitol and behavioral approaches to improve parental perception and dental habits can affect their oral health. Recently, she received funding to see the influence of pediatricians in giving consistent oral health facts to parents of young children.
The implications of poor dental health can be severe, which is why Nelson seeks to address them.
“First of all, in children, it can affect their learning,” she explained. “If you’ve ever had cavities, tooth pain is not pleasant. If you have tooth pain, then it affects your learning and overall how you feel about yourself. You want to feel good. It affects general health.”
Since Nelson began working in city neighborhoods near the university, children have gained a better understanding of the importance of regular dental visits.
“Disparity still exists,” she said, “but we have helped our community to some extent but more needs to be done.”
Learn more about Nelson in this week’s five questions.
1. What is your proudest accomplishment?
First of all, coming here alone and making it by actually being persistent is an accomplishment. The second thing I would say is my work in the community. We are not just here doing research and collecting data—our work actually helps the community.
2. If you could do anything you wanted for a day, what would you do?
Our work is so stressful, so maybe take a long walk in a scenic place.
3. Who would you want to play you in a movie of your life?
I don’t think I’m that famous. I’m not really sure that what I’m doing is unique or different. There are few people who make a lasting impression and contribution to society—I think those are the people who should have movies.
4. If you could go back and tell your childhood self something, what would you say?
Not to be very idealistic. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
University Circle and the campus. We have great museums, we have Severance Hall, we have culture around campus. It’s a nice, beautiful campus.