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NIDCR director to retire at end of year

Dr. Martha Somerman noted as first woman to head agency

November 18, 2019

By Jennifer Garvin

Dr. Somerman
Washington — The National Institutes of Health announced that Dr. Martha J. Somerman, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, will be retiring at the end of 2019, the agency said in a Nov. 14 news release.

Dr. Somerman, Ph.D., is the first woman to head NIDCR. Prior to joining the agency in 2012, she was the dean at the University of Washington School of Dentistry from 2002-11.

“It has been my privilege to work with Martha. She is an accomplished and caring clinical scientist who has provided dedicated scientific leadership to NIDCR. I wish Martha every happiness as she begins her next chapter,” said Francis Collins, M.D., NIH director.

“We knew NIDCR was in good hands when they hired Martha, and her contributions have been remarkable,” ADA President Chad P. Gehani said.

In 2016, Dr. Somerman launched NIDCR 2030, a national initiative to advance dental, oral and craniofacial research. As a part of that, NIH credited Dr. Somerman with spearheading a new research focus on autotherapies — prevention and treatment tactics that will take advantage of the body’s innate ability to repair and regenerate damaged or diseased tissues. She also established the Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Tissue Regenerative Consortium and the NIDCR Director’s Postdoctoral Fellowship to Enhance Diversity in Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research. Dr. Collins called her a “pioneer” for recognizing the need to support midcareer investigators in referring to the NIDCR Award for Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research in 2017.

Dr. Gehani noted that in Dr. Somerman’s tenure, Congress has increased NIDCR's funding every year, even when other institutes had their funding slashed.

“That's a real testament to how lawmakers view NIDCR's importance and to her leadership. She's been a tireless advocate for bringing oral health to the forefront of overall wellness. Martha has also been a generous mentor to rising researchers and champion for those who have dedicated their careers to the science of dentistry. NIDCR has a developed a strong strategic plan that will elevate dental research all the way through 2030. We can thank Martha for that,” Dr. Gehani said.

A periodontist and researcher, Dr. Somerman has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, served on several journal editorial boards and won global recognition for her research, according to a 2011 article in The Journal of the American Dental Association.

“In addition to her substantial scientific and leadership activities, Martha has made it a priority to improve the oral health of the nation through her commitment to overcoming health inequity and advancing public health initiatives. She has been a leader in the dental community discussion about the use of opioids, and is proudly leading the development of the second Surgeon General’s Report on Oral Health, which is expected to be released in 2020,” Dr. Collins said.

Dr. Somerman is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American College of Dentists, and International College of Dentists. Honors include receiving the IADR/Straumann Award in Regenerative Periodontal Medicine, Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Association of Periodontology and the IADR Distinguished Scientist Award for Basic Research in Biological Mineralization.

Dr. Somerman, who will step down Dec. 31, will remain the chief of the Laboratory of Oral Connective Tissue Biology at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, NIDCR said. After that, previous NIDCR director, Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Ph.D., NIH principal deputy director, will serve as interim director during the agency’s nationwide search for a new director.

“The ADA wishes Dr. Somerman well in her retirement,” Dr. Gehani said. “She is a former member of the ADA's Council on Scientific Affairs and a strong advocate for the ADA and the profession as a whole. The impact of her contributions will be felt for years to come.