Third-Year Student Takes First Place in Hatton Research Competition


Grace Huang, D’21

Philadelphia – Third-year Penn Dental Medicine student Grace Huang (D’21) has been recognized for her research, taking first place in the junior category of the 2020 American Association for Dental Research (AADR) Hatton Competition. The annual competition awards prizes in three categories (junior, senior, and postdoctoral) with winners selected from the top abstracts submitted nationwide.

Active in research throughout her time at Penn Dental Medicine, Huang’s winning project was titled “Cytolethal Distending Toxin (Cdt) Induces Macrophages to Release Pro-Inflammatory Mediators,” conducted with mentor Dr. Bruce Shenker, Professor in the Department of Basic & Translational Sciences.

“My project is about Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans (Aa), its cytolethal distending toxin (Cdt), and this toxin’s pro-inflammatory effects on macrophages,” says Huang. “Previous studies have demonstrated Cdt’s ability to induce macrophages to secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines, and the goal of this study was to determine its effects on other pro-inflammatory mediators, namely arachidonic acid metabolites.”

Huang explains that for a long time, Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans has been considered a putative periodontal pathogen. She notes that Cdt’s ability to induce macrophages to secrete not only pro-inflammatory cytokines but also arachidonic acid metabolites may help to stimulate inflammatory destruction of tissue and contribute to Aa’s role as a keystone pathogen. The products of this destruction, such as protein fragments and hemin, may then serve to fuel the growth of Aa and other bacteria, adds Huang, and thereby, sustain infection in a chronic inflammatory disease such as periodontitis. “Basically, this helps us understand how this toxin affects a component of the host’s immune response,” she says.

As a 2019 recipient of a Penn Dental Medicine AADR Travel Award for this project, Huang would have attended this year’s IADR/AADR/CADR annual meeting in March to present her work. With the meeting cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the AADR Hatton Competition finalists were asked to submit slide and video presentations and were judged on their submission. Judging criteria included originality and design of the investigation, quality of the data produced, suitability of the methods of analysis used, scientific value of the work, quality of the oral presentation, and demonstration of mastery of the subject.

Huang, who entered Penn Dental Medicine through the 7-year Bio-Dental Program, has been doing research since her time as an undergraduate student. She met her mentor, Dr. Shenker, while presenting a poster for The Forsyth Institute at IADR as a Penn undergraduate freshman. She started working in his lab later that year. “Dr. Shenker has been extremely supportive,” says Huang. “He suggested that I apply to the Research Honors Program before starting my D1 year, and I spent much of the spring semester of my junior year and the following D1 summer performing experiments.”

Huang believes her research experiences have encouraged her to think more critically and seek a deeper understanding of everything she does as a clinician as well. “Certainly, learning about the pathophysiology of Aa virulence factors is directly applicable to understanding patients’ clinical presentations,” says Huang, “but also, many of my patients want to understand the logic behind the procedures and the materials. Being able to communicate the rationale or the science behind everything I do during an appointment has allowed me to build more meaningful and trusting relationships with my patients. That’s also what’s so great about Penn’s advocacy for evidence-based care.”

Huang is preparing to apply for specialty programs and hopes to stay involved in research during her postdoctoral study and throughout her career. “I love to present and teach, so I can definitely see myself being involved in academic dentistry in the future.”

As for the achievement of taking a top prize in the Hatton Competition, Huang stresses it was a team effort. “This would not have been possible without the guidance of Dr. Shenker and Lisa Pankoski-Walker from his ; the opportunity provided by Penn Dental Medicine Research Day; and the feedback from Dr. Kathleen Boesze-Battaglia, Professor and Director of the Research Honors Program, about my presentation,” says Huang. “I would also be remiss not to thank everybody at The Forsyth Institute for helping me build a strong foundation back when I was in high school and for continuing to support me year after year.”