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Renowned researcher earns prestigious honor

Dr. Slavkin receives 2009 ADA Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research

Teacher. Leader. Researcher. Mentor.

Who could choose one word to describe Dr. Harold Slavkin?

As one of the world's experts on craniofacial development and genetic birth defects, Dr. Slavkin is known throughout dentistry for his tireless work on the health care needs of minorities and for simultaneously helping inspire the next generation of dental researchers.

He is also known for his eight-year tenure as dean of the USC School of Dentistry and five years spent as the director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. For these accomplishments, he is the recipient of the 2009 ADA Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research.

The Gold Medal Award is the Association's most prestigious scientific honor and is presented every three years to an individual who has contributed to the advancement of the profession of dentistry or who has helped improve the oral health of the community through basic or clinical research. The ADA and Church & Dwight Co. Inc., jointly sponsor the Gold Medal Award, which includes a grant of $25,000. The winner also receives a gold medallion and serves a three-year term on the Council on Scientific Affairs.

Dr. Slavkin learned he'd received the honor from a phone call from ADA President John S. Findley in July.

"I was deeply touched," he said. "I hold a very sincere sense of appreciation and feel pride and much humility."

Combing through the pile of nominations for Dr. Slavkin, one word came up repeatedly: vision. Peers, fellow dentists and former students praised him for what one described as his "lifetime of contributions to dental research."

Dr. Tom Diekwisch, current head of the oral biology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Dentistry summed it up best, saying, "At a stage when most remain stagnant, Hal is still open to everything new."

Said Dr. Michael Rethman, chair of the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, "Dr. Slavkin has long been one of the profession's most influential thought leaders and futurists and has had a major impact on public policy and the dental research enterprise."

Dr. Harold Slavkin—Hal to everyone—was born in Chicago, the son of Ukrainian immigrants who pressed upon him to "do what makes you happy." He got his start in dentistry at the age of 17 when he joined the U.S. Army as a dental technician at Fort Sam Houston and later served at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center from 1955-58. There, he was exposed to craniofacial prostheses for severe facial burn patients.

During training, he met and was inspired by Dr. Henry Sutro, a California dentist who encouraged him to get a liberal arts education. His parents stressed he could be whatever he wanted, but he found himself drawn to the profession of dentistry. By that time, his family was in California and he enrolled in USC Dental School, the same institution from which he received his bachelor's degree in English literature in 1961.

A voracious reader, he went from studying the classics to diagnosing caries as a dental student from 1961 to 1965. Along with two other dental students, Marvin and Stanton Canter, he engaged in student dental research and the group published several peer-reviewed papers that focused on the second division block of the trigeminal ganglion. He also was inspired by Dr. Marsh Robinson, and together they studied amputation neuromas and were published in The Journal of the American Dental Association.

Postdoctoral fellowships with Richard Greulich and Lucien Bavetta followed, teaching anatomy and biochemistry. Dr. Slavkin eventually joining the USC faculty in 1968 and was the first hire of then dean John Ingle. All in all, he has been with the university for 51 years.

In the 1970s, Dr. Slavkin described the potential values of the developing tooth organ as a model system for studies of morphogenesis, intercellular communications, differential gene expressions and principles of biomineralization. He and his colleagues discovered the major gene for enamel (amelogenin) and mapped the human gene to the X and Y chromosomes. They also identified the role of a number of dentin proteins, and also contributed to the elucidation of a number of inherited craniofacial malformations such as the MSX-1 gene and "Boston-type" craniosynostosis. The group also made a number of seminal discoveries related to cementum and cementogenesis.

Vowing never to retire—playing golf or lying on a beach is not for him—Dr. Slavkin stepped down as dean in 2008 and is currently on his first sabbatical in 22 years but plans to return to USC in early 2010 to resume being part of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology (of which he is the founding director) and teaching in the graduate school and dental schools.

"My plate is full but it's full of fun things," he said, adding that his work "doesn't feel like work."

Even while on sabbatical he is still at CCMB three times a week; he is also working on a novel and enjoys spending time with his wife, Lois, and their family, and taking time out for weekly sails. He continues to advocate for health inequities and credits Lois with sparking his commitment to disadvantaged populations, particularly children, through her tireless work with non-profits and charities.

He says he got into it "by osmosis and it has dramatically changed my life."

One project close to home was the 12-year fight to fluoridate the water of Los Angeles County and Southern California.

Tired of being told "no" by the individual city councils he helped present to, the group finally sought the backing of the Metropolitan Water District and convinced them to fluoridate the water from their end.

"That was an example of thinking outside the box," he said.

From 1995-2000, Dr. Slavkin served as the sixth director of the NIDCR, where he was credited with the institute's name change (it was formerly called the National Institute of Dental Research) as well as being instrumental in the formation of the Friends of the NIDCR and helping create the Surgeon General's first report on Oral Health, a report that remains groundbreaking today.

Under his leadership, he also guided the institution to a $120 million budget increase.

Conversing with Dr. Slavkin requires the ability to switch gears quickly as he zips from Faulkner (a love from his undergraduate days) to the profound ("the verb of life is to try") to the new "Melrose Place" (his son Todd is the CW show's executive producer). He said he believes many of the country's more serious problems could be aided by improving literacy and compared mentoring students to growing tomatoes; only it's easier and more rewarding.

"Mentoring sounds like a job description," he said. "To me, if you're an academic, you get a kick out of growing other people. Sometimes people just need creative space and sometimes they just need a buffer and to keep stimulating them to find a pathway and to help them go on their own. And they're all different. It makes for a very interesting time."

He seemed genuinely perplexed when people credit his foresight on championing overall health.

"I have no idea why I've been billed as this futurist or visionary," he said. "It seems self-evident that the mouth is connected to the rest of the body.

"Thinking about it like this is not like rocket science. It's obvious!"

On health care reform, "I'd like to see a minimum of oral health care for everyone regardless of age or ability."

When asked about what sort of legacy he'd like to leave, Dr. Slavkin kept it simple: He'd just like to make a difference and leave the world a better place than he found it.

"The world is a much better place now than in 1938 but it still has a long way to go."