Few people know as early as middle school which career they will pursue, but when Sara met her orthodontist it was clear to her that her future would involve dentistry. The Dunnellon, Florida native applied and was accepted to a seven-year bio-dental consortial program that enabled her to earn an accelerated bachelor’s in pre-dental sciences at Lehigh University and to complete her dental education at Penn Dental Medicine. What she didn’t plan for, however, was how many research opportunities Penn Dental would offer, and how passionate about research she would become.
“Improving patients’ lives would not be possible without the contributions of dental research,” Sara says. Fascinated with the scientific process since high school, she continued to nurture her passion for research at Penn Dental Medicine with Dr. Sunday Akintoye, a leader in the study of orofacial stem cells and their therapeutic applications. She worked closely with Dr. Akintoye on a study investigating the differentiation potential of human orofacial stromal cells when supported by calcium-silicate cements. The success of the study led to Sara’s selection as the Penn Dental Medicine representative to the 52nd Annual Student Clinicians Research Program at the 2011 American Dental Association Annual Session.
“This opportunity taught me the importance of communicating and learning from fellow researchers across the globe, and further impressed upon me the importance of research in the field of dental medicine,” says Sara, who has found participating in research a personal journey as well as an academic one. “Scientific research is a quest into the unknown; it is the struggle to confirm your expectations, and the willingness to suddenly abandon those expectations in light of unexpected evidence. It teaches you focus, patience, diligence, and most importantly, to always question what you discover.”
As President of Penn Dental Medicine’s Vernon Brightman Research Society, Sara also helped organize the School’s 2012 Oral Health Fair; the annual fair features student research presentations and is aimed at promoting student interest in oral health research. “With over 300 students and faculty in attendance, we were able to advocate what many years at a lab bench had taught me: to always questions assumptions,” says Sara.
Now that graduation is in sight, Sara has set her sights on a career as a periodontist and dental educator. “Penn Dental Medicine has, without a doubt, prepared me for any and all challenges I will face in my career as a doctor of dental medicine,” she says. “I have had the privilege of learning from faculty who truly care about our progress in dentistry and in life as well.”
“Improving patients’ lives would not be possible without the contributions of dental research.”Sara Shah