Research Project Takes Students, Faculty to Kenya

Global Oral Health Research fellows

Global Oral Health Research fellows include (L-R) Vandan Kesar, Allison Jan, Punam Patel, Claire Skach, Deepika Ramachandran and Sheela Lewis.

Sunil Kapila

Sunil Kapila, BDS, MS, PhD

On Friday, many students will head home or on vacation for quarter break. At the same time, a contingent of School of Dentistry students and faculty will board a Kenya-bound flight to begin a special research opportunity.

Sunil Kapila, BDS, MS, PhD, and Benjamin Chaffee, DDS, MPH, PhD, will lead six student dentists in a two-week fellowship under the auspices of the Global Oral Health Research Fellowship Program. It’s the culmination of many months comprising fellow selection, refining research projects and finalizing logistics and other details halfway around the globe. Fellows submitted their applications last April, and began their research last July.

The Global Oral Health Research Fellowships were launched in 2013. One of the things “that makes this year’s project special is that it represents the first time all our student fellows are working together as a single team,” said Dr. Chaffee, director of the Global Oral Health Program. “That teamwork greatly expands the scope of what can be accomplished this year and plants the seeds for what we hope will be a long-term, sustainable partnership with our colleagues in Kenya in the years ahead.”

Ben Chaffee

Benjamin Chaffee, DDS, MPH, PhD

Those colleagues include faculty and students at the School of Dental Sciences at the University of Nairobi, who will host the UCSF team. The seeds for this year’s project were sown years earlier at the University of Michigan, where Dr. Kapila and Yvonne Kapila, DDS, PhD, led similar student research trips to Kenya. “I expect this Kenya project to become a flagship global oral health activity for UCSF’s School of Dentistry, just as was the case at Michigan,” said Dr. Sunil Kapila, who earned his BDS degree at the University of Nairobi.

The program is designed to span a two-year cycle. The first year focuses on preparation, including areas of inquiry, planning projects, seeking Institutional Review Board approval, and culminating in two weeks of immersion field activity in Kenya. The second year is devoted to wrapping up projects and transitioning to a new group of students.

“Such a structure will help build momentum and create a highly valuable and sustainable activity that will benefit both our students and the local community in Kenya,” said Dr. Kapila.

The UCSF team includes D2s Vandan Kasar, Punam Patel and Claire Skach; D3s Allison Jan and Sheela Lewis; and ID4 Deepika Ramachandran. Their project will feature an assessment of the availability and pricing of home dental hygiene supplies, like toothpaste and dental floss, in urban and rural areas of Kenya. The team also will visit local primary schools, evaluate the fluoride content of toothpastes, and examine the marketing of non-cigarette tobacco products.

The UCSF fellows will collaborate with their peers at the University of Nairobi, exchanging information about dental education in their respective countries and jointly participating in seminars with faculty and students.

“Professor Regina Mutave, dean of University of Nairobi’s School of Dental Sciences, has been a highly reliable partner in the progress of this endeavor and will be key to ensuring its longer-term success,” said Dr. Kapila.

The fellowship is a welcome return to research for Jan. “I had done research as an undergraduate, but didn’t engage in it my first two years (in dental school).” The prospect of studying health disparities in a public health setting is exciting, she said.

“Finding solutions, how do we overcome limitations” is one of the exciting things Ramachandran is looking forward to. Another is informing the school and campus communities about the project. Ramachandran and Jan are helping to coordinate social media for the group, in order to share their experiences (see sidebar). “We need to let the UCSF community know about the research that’s being conducted, and how good UCSF is” at spearheading such opportunities.

Getting the word out is important, agreed Dr. Kapila, for “highlighting the exceptional experiences of the students in research and delivery of care in an underdeveloped environment, getting other students interested in pursuing this kind of activity in the future, helping as a recruiting tool for students to our dental school and finally for raising awareness and funding for sustaining this activity.”

In addition to Global Oral Health Program funds, the project has garnered some much-appreciated support from the International College of Dentists, which is providing financial assistance to the team.

Dr. Chaffee recognizes the unique nature of this project.

“When this program launched, I made clear that we’re charting a new path and that the ultimate outcome will be partly dictated by the hard work invested,” he said. “I’m truly moved by the diligence and overall character of our fellows. They’ve been more than up to the challenge, and I’m looking forward to seeing their research goals achieved.”

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