UW News

February 28, 2008

Wataha takes the helm of Restorative Dentistry

Dr. John C. Wataha is the new chair of the UW Department of Restorative Dentistry.

A prominent researcher and educator, Wataha will teach courses in restorative dentistry and will continue to pursue his research interests at the interface between biomaterials science, basic cellular biology and clinical dentistry. He also is an expert in the study of cellular and molecular interactions between oral tissues and materials — a field known as biocompatibility.

Prior to joining the UW faculty, Wataha was on the faculty at the Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry, where he was professor in the Department of Oral Biology and Maxillofacial Pathology with joint appointments in the Dental Materials Division, Department of Oral Rehabilitation and School of Graduate Studies.

Here he talks with University Week about dentistry and his professional interests.

Q. What brings you to the UW School of Dentistry?

A. This dental school is ranked among the best in the country by many measures — clinically, teaching, research productivity. That’s one aspect of it — it is my privilege to be here. Second, my current job is something different for me. I had been in Georgia for 12 years and had served many roles. I was not unhappy there; it was just time to do something different.

My job at UW will be different. It’s an opportunity to serve in other ways — less one-on-one with students, but more creating opportunities so that other people can do what they want.

Q. You mean being chair of the Department of Restorative Dentistry?

A. Yes. At Georgia, I coordinated a rather involved research group. It was primarily about research. Some of the research didn’t have anything to do with dentistry, and some had a lot to do with dentistry. I did that because the school there wanted me to serve that role. And, we were very successful. But I found myself drifting further from clinical dentistry. I wasn’t terribly comfortable with that, so the current opportunity also was an opportunity to get back to clinical dentistry.

Q. Your specialty has been biocompatibility, is that right?

A. That’s my research specialty. I have no specialty dental training per se. I have a Ph.D. in biomaterials and oral biology.

Q. As the population ages and more people need restorative services, will biomaterials become increasingly important?

A. They already are important. The neat thing about the biomaterials field is that the type of material that is placed into a mandible for an implant is not so different than the one that is placed into a hip, or the material they use in cardiovascular stents. So, many of the issues about how tissues react to these materials and their applications go beyond dentistry. That fact fosters interdisciplinary and collaborative opportunities.

Q. What’s your vision for the Department of Restorative Dentistry?

A. I think the best visions are visions of consensus, so I have no vision that I will impose on the department, except in broad strokes. We have to remain strong clinically and train the best people for the state of Washington and the region. Restorative dentistry is a huge part of the curriculum here, so the ability of the department to do a good job is paramount to producing good graduates.

I am very much a believer in dentistry as an academic endeavor and not just vocational training, so I want our faculty to grow and be better next year than they were last year.

At the rate at which things are changing in dentistry, we can’t afford to be stagnant if we are going to set the example for and be an educational asset to the community- at-large.

One of the most important things we have to teach our students is to keep learning; otherwise they’re toast — very quickly. For a student who graduates today, the knowledge base is going to turn over much faster than it did previously.

Q. As the largest department in the School of Dentistry, what role does restorative dentistry play?

A. We teach a large part of the curriculum. We deal with students from the day they get here to the day they graduate — almost every aspect. We teach them the principles of dentistry didactically, we take them into a pre-clinical laboratory and let them work on models and simulators, and then they make this huge step into clinic, and we help them work on a patient. Unlike in medicine, our students must be ready to practice independently the day they graduate. It is an awesome responsibility for ourselves and for our students.

Q. How does restorative dentistry interface with the other clinical specialties?

A. Each of the specialties of dentistry has curriculum that is very important, but there is such a huge integration of knowledge these days. There are no longer distinct boundaries between any of it. It’s all interconnected. We’re all in it together. We have to be. The days are gone in dental practice when the practitioner can simply focus on restorative treatment.

The public health aspect of dentistry also has become enormously important. All the knowledge in the world isn’t any good if a patient can’t access care, or if dentists don’t know how to treat some demographic groups adequately because they don’t understand the culture.

Understanding issues of public health is so difficult. The UW School of Dentistry public health group is one of three centers in the country that is collecting and centralizing data from private practitioners that can be used to improve dental treatment. These data are critically important to dental care of the future. We must teach our students how to best treat aging populations, populations with different systemic diseases, people who have trauma, all types of people.

Q. If you were to summarize your own philosophy of teaching dentistry, what would it be?

A. I see the students who come in here as colleagues, as future colleagues. I try to learn from them. I always tell them that I learn more from them than they do from me. Young people are remarkably observant and I value their questions. I try to create an atmosphere where they’re not afraid to not know, because that’s death to learning.

Q. You seem to love what you do.

A. I love watching a student grow. The typical student walks in the first year and picks up the instruments with fear, but when they walk out that door at graduation, they are confident. They grow up — they grow up emotionally, they learn to make decisions for themselves, and they learn to look beyond their own needs toward the needs of others. That is an amazing process to watch and be a part of. It is a privilege.

I also get a great kick out of watching faculty grow, too.

Q. What changes have you seen in dentistry over your career?

A. As in most fields, technology has given us materials and techniques that we didn’t have before. A case in point: I graduated from dental school 26 years ago, and there is not a single material used then that’s used now — not one — every one of them has changed. That’s taken maybe 20 years to happen, but it will happen again in 10 years or less.

New materials are being developed, new techniques are being introduced — everything is different — the way that we prepare teeth surgically for restoration — the philosophies about how we perform dentistry are different. There are routine techniques now that were nearly impossible back then — bonding to the tooth structure, esthetic dentistry, using light to cure materials, the whole area of implant dentistry used to be pretty much voodoo, and it’s certainly notthat any more.

Q. You mentioned the change in philosophies. Could you say more about that?

A. I think the whole idea of how you remove decay from a tooth has changed and will continue to change. When I went to dental school, and times before that, there was the philosophy of “extension for prevention” — in other words, you would surgically remove tooth structure beyond the disease in anticipation that the disease was probably going to go there anyway, with the thought that you actually were saving the patient from more treatment.

Technology made extension for prevention obsolete. You have to understand that between where the tooth stops and the restoration starts, there was always a fine little gap. In that gap, bacteria would accumulate and disease would often recur. But, now with bonding, that gap can often be eliminated. Better materials helped, too.

Furthermore, we found out that by extending our surgical tooth removal, although with good intentions, we would actually significantly weaken a tooth. So, ifyou do that to my permanent tooth when I’m 12 years old, everything’s okay until I turn about 50. By then, that weakened tooth fractures due to cumulative effects of stress, and you’re looking at a much bigger treatment. Now, we know more about how to surgically prepare a tooth to control stresses, how much tooth structure to take away — all of these things have changed and improved the way we do dentistry.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I’m a pianist — more of a composer than a pianist, I guess. It’s more than a hobby and less than a profession for me. I prefer acoustic pianos over electronic keyboards, because I think when those hammers hit the strings, those strings talk to each other — so the sound is the sum of the strings, which to me, cannot be replicated electronically.

What I love to do most is write and play. Through some very sophisticated electronics, I am able to record my compositions, and because of the technology I don’t have to go anywhere to do it, I don’t have to have a special room or a lot of expensive equipment.

Q. Have you shared your compositions with others?

A. Some, but I’m not a public pianist; you will probably never hear me play. It is a private thing to me. My joy is in the composition and in the growing through that process of composing. Over the past 30 years, I have written and copyrighted over 300 song — and I am still writing — but it’s just what I do for fun.