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At Volpe Research Center, women seek to improve dental technologies, materials

August 28, 2019

By Kimber Solana

Collage of VRC lab photos
Scientists: From left, Styliani Alimperti, Ph.D., Nicole Ritzert, Ph.D., and Shinae Kim, Ph.D., are three of the six principal investigators at the Volpe Research Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Their research includes developing improved “smart” dental materials, such as dental composites resistant to breakdown and sensors that can detect dental decay and periodontal diseases. 
Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in an ADA News series examining the changing demographics and increasing diversity in dentistry.

For 90 years, scientists have developed materials, tools and technologies for the dental community at the Volpe Research Center. These have resulted in over 200 products that have provided the foundation for how dentistry is practiced throughout the world.
Image of Changing Face logoToday, of the VRC’s six principal investigators — those who manage and direct the projects and research — four are women.

These VRC scientists are focused on developing improved “smart” dental materials such as dental composites that are resistant to breakdown, are capable of self-healing and have antimicrobial properties. They are also developing improved sensors to help early detection of dental decay and periodontal diseases.

The ADA News spoke with three of them to discuss their work and background. While not dentists, these women play a large part in how dentists work and, ultimately, the oral health of patients.

Nicole Ritzert, Ph.D.
Imagine a faster and more accurate way to assess a person’s health such as risk of heart disease and diabetes through inspecting a person’s mouth.

That’s the focus of Dr. Ritzert’s work at the VRC.

“We’re designing and testing sensors that we can one day use in people’s mouths to detect a variety of diseases,” she said. “I’m not a biologist or dentist, but I know how to measure relevant parameters such as pH. I’m able to use my expertise to help fill in gaps in oral health research.”

With a background in electrochemistry, Dr. Ritzert has over 10 years of experience in characterizing the electrochemical properties of proteins, organic molecules and thin, layered materials.

Growing up, Dr. Ritzert said, she enjoyed science, math, reading, working with her hands and often made art.

“Seeing something that I’ve created from my imagination, whether it is a new piece of lab equipment or a finished drawing of a flower, is exciting,” she said.

After seeing her sister go to college, she wanted to pursue course work beyond high school. She chose to study chemistry, earning her degree from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.  

“I wanted to work on practical problems, just like my dad,” she said. “He didn’t have a high school degree (but later earned his GED), but he had a huge impact on my education. He was curious about many topics and taught me the value of learning continuously.”

She then earned her master’s degree in chemistry and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. After graduating, she was a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland — also the home of the Volpe Research Center.

About two years ago, a colleague’s boss asked Dr. Ritzert if she wanted to join the VRC.     

“I took the job because I could apply my knowledge of electrochemistry and expertise in fabrication and testing of small electrodes in a field new to me,” she said. “I was excited for the opportunity to help in developing products that could be used to improve health, as well as work with researchers in the VRC to make measurements that may help them better understand how disease affects dental tissues.”

Shinae Kim, Ph.D.
Dr. Kim, the newest principal investigator, is participating and managing two projects at the VRC.

Similar to Dr. Ritzert’s work, Dr. Kim is developing oral-sensors for fast diagnosis of oral disease or real-time monitoring of the disease’s progress.

Another is investigating the effects of e-cigarette vape, especially the sweet-flavored e-liquids, on oral health.

“Based on the biological and physiochemical data, we found that certain e-liquid ingredients interact with hard tissues of the oral cavity in such a way that resembles high-sucrose candies and acidic drinks,” she said.

Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Dr. Kim moved to the U.S. in 2011 to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in laboratory for microsystems at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She first came to the U.S. as a visiting researcher at Cornell University in 2008.

Dr. Kim has extensive background in optics, electronics, nano/micro-fabrication and microfluidics. She first joined the VRC as a postdoctoral fellow in February 2017 before becoming a principal investigator in April.

“We help dentists by offering newly engineered diagnostic tools, which are fabricated with cutting-edge technology,” she said of the work conducted at the VRC.

According to the latest National Health and Nutrition Survey, 47.2% or 64.7 million American adults are suffering from periodontitis. Dr. Kim said that current diagnostic methods for periodontitis are based on conventional methods, which include clinical parameters (color changes, bleeding upon probing, etc.) and review of radiographs.

“However, these methods are limited in their ability to accurately detect and diagnose the dynamic states of exacerbation and remission that characterize periodontal diseases,” she said. “Our new diagnostic tool, which can provide dentists with the ability to identify an active disease site, would be an important addition to help clinical periodontal disease assessment.”

In addition, by offering scientific data and evidence, dentists can better help their patients understand the potential harmful effects of e-cigarette flavors.

“[The work at the VRC] does not start with a mere intellectual curiosity, but we do research to help dentists,” Dr. Kim said. “There, it is very attractive to me to conduct more practical and directly usable research. It’s different from other research institutes or universities.”

Styliani Alimperti, Ph.D.
As a biomedical engineer, Dr. Alimperti said her goal is to develop methods and technology that can reduce the burden of patient suffering from devastating diseases.

“This has revealed significant challenges, but has also been a privilege,” said Dr. Alimperti, who joined the VRC in January 2018. “It is this tangible benefit to individuals, along with the progress it fosters, that cements my commitment to biomedical research and engineering.”

Utilizing “organ-on-a-chip” technology — a microfluidic device that mimics the functionality of an organ — Dr. Alimperti seeks to develop new tissue engineering and regenerative therapies to help patients suffering from dental diseases, including periodontal diseases.

“Periodontal diseases are considered among the most expensive to treat,” she said. “Although different treatments have been developed against gum diseases, significant challenges remain, such as the high cost of tooth or bone grafts.”

Patients who receive these grafts, she added, are subject to lifelong side effects such as increased rates of gum infections, diabetes and oral malignancies.

“Thus, it’s necessary to engineer methods for gum therapeutics, which can be applied to personalized medical treatment based on individual characteristics of each patient, enhancing medicine treatments,” she said.

Dr. Alimperti received her Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering at the University at Buffalo in New York, where she established a strong background in stem cells and vascular biology. This led her to a postdoctoral position at Boston University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard
University to concentrate on developing new tissue engineering methods with potential application in regenerative medicine.

At the VRC, Dr. Alimperti said, she’s found a unique place because of the center’s interdisciplinary research areas of engineering, physics, chemistry and dentistry.

“The collaboration between physicists, chemists, material engineers and dentists is fantastic,” she said. “By integrating chemical material synthesis and characterization, engineering methods such as 3D printing and establishing robust physical measurements, we can answer complex biological problems.”