UW News

February 22, 2007

A conversation with Martha Somerman, Dean of the School of Dentistry

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Dr. Martha J. Somerman relocated from Ann Arbor, Mich., and became dean of the UW School of Dentistry in April 2002.


Q. What brought you to the University of Washington School of Dentistry?


A. Foremost, it was a vision that was in parallel with the School’s: to educate a progressive oral health workforce, develop regional collaborations, and bring advances in science to address the pressing needs of our state and nation.


I was at a point in my career where I felt, as a dean, I could really help move the profession ahead, move the educational system ahead, and make a difference in terms of the impact of dental oral health on a larger level – nationally, internationally.


And, if I was going to move to a deanship, it would only be to a school like the UW’s, which is a unique institution because of its great strengths on both the clinical and research sides. To have that balance is remarkable. To cap it off, capability to interact with other schools and departments here is amazing.  For example, the University and the School of Dentistry are very strong in the public health area, and our students are very excited to be able to take advantage of this connection.  Small class size was another deciding factor for me in coming here. Being able to get to know the students and get immediate feedback is extremely important.


Q. What do you see as the top priorities for the school?


A. One is to continue to advance our already strong clinical component. In this regard, we want to ensure that the latest advances in technology are an integral part of students’ training, and I’m interested in developing an advanced technology center that our fourth year students would go through. Social responsibility is another priority and we have increased the ability of students between their first and second years to participate in volunteer programs through RUOP (Rural / Underserved Opportunities Program). We also want to be recognized as a school that trains academic leaders and importantly, we are committed to enhancing a diversity of talents, skills and experiences throughout the School.


Q. Your research focus is in the specialty of periodontics. Can you explain this area of dentistry and what your research encompasses?


A.  Periodontics is a specialty of periodontology and deals with tissues supporting the tooth and consequences of periodontal diseases, which destroy the supporting tissue, including soft tissues (periodontal ligaments) and supporting bone.


In this regard, my area of research focuses on understanding the mechanics causing destruction of periodontal tissues and improving existing therapies for regenerating these tissues lost as a consequence of disease. Specifically, one approach my lab is using is to go back developmentally, to define genes and cells involved in regulating  formation of these tissues, and apply knowledge gained from these studies to regenerate periodontal tissues and supporting bone.


Q. The UW recently announced expansion plans for the dental school in Spokane through the new Regional Initiatives in Dental Education, or RIDE, program. What are the opportunities associated with RIDE?


A. RIDE has been approved by Governor Gregoire as part of her biennial budget. If it is adopted by the Legislature, our School will be the first in the country to have such a program. The advantages are that it is a collaborative partnership — among three universities, the UW, Eastern Washington University and Washington State University, and between the School of Medicine and the School of Dentistry — and a regional program. RIDE will bring our students to areas where the next generations of physicians and dentists are most needed, to the Eastern side of the state, to our underserved communities, and to our rural areas. It’s a program that should be successful because it’s collaborative, it’s interdisciplinary, it builds on the strengths of three schools, and it addresses the critical issue of access to care. It addresses the shortage of dentists in these communities as well. I think this is an incredible program, and we’re creating a model for all the other dental schools that I hope will be followed.


Q. What are the most visible changes you’ve seen in dental education since becoming dean?


A.  I see our students becoming much more community-oriented. When we started RUOP, very few students had applied. Today, we have three times as many applications as we had in the beginning. So I think that’s one of the things that’s really changed and that we’re excited about — giving back to the community.


We continue to be very successful in research. We received a $22 million grant for PRECEDENT, which stands for Practice-based Research Collaborative in Evidence-based Dentistry. PRECEDENT will establish the infrastructure to perform a variety of oral health research studies in diverse practice settings across the five-state region of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Utah.


I think this is an incredible opportunity in terms of having health care providers in the community really appreciate the research. They’re asking research questions and we’re helping them to design studies and training them to do research in their offices. And it’s a more realistic setting for the research as well.


And I think the other area is the rapid advances in technology and incorporating them as part of our students’ education. One example is training them in the use of highly sophisticated microscopes in the clinical setting.


Q. How did you first become interested in dentistry?


A. I thought dentistry was a perfect mix of art and science. It’s a very artistic profession, if you think about design and the shapes of the different teeth. I also wanted to understand how those different mineralized tissues form. Dentistry involves a lot of technical skills, but it also requires a thorough understanding of science related to the oral cavity. Periodontics, my area of specialty, encourages innovation in clinical  practice, as well as multiple avenues of research to better understand  the many and varied mechanisms involved in the formation and maintenance of healthy  oral tissues. So that’s what inspired me to go into periodontics as a clinician and researcher. I saw patients with bleeding gums and tissues that were all inflamed, and I wanted to learn ‘what’s the mechanism, what’s going on here and how can we prevent this?’


Q. As a native New Yorker, how do you like living in the Pacific Northwest?


A. I love this part of the country. I’m an outdoors person and this is a beautiful place to be outdoors. It’s a wonderfully visual place to live.