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The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry (SOD) was growing on campus and beyond entering the 21st century. Under the leadership of dean Mary Lynne Capilouto, D.M.D., the school was reorganized into nine academic departments, a streamlining that set the stage for future growth under dean Huw Thomas beginning in 2004.

Completion of the 7th & 8th floor Laboratories

Also during Capilouto’s tenure, the SOD graduating class of 2002 ranked third on the National Dental Board Exam; UAB was the only site in the nation studying oral bone loss as part of the National Institutes of Health’s comprehensive study of women’s health issues; and the SOD underwent a $10 million renovation and updating of clinical, research and teaching facilities.

While all this was taking place on campus, the School of Dentistry was expanding its scope beyond Birmingham as well. In addition to outreach programs in such developing countries as Cameroon and Guatemala, the school focused on improving care throughout Alabama with the creation in 2000 of SEARCH (Students/residents Experiences And Rotations in Community Health), a voluntary rotation in which student, faculty and alumni volunteers provide dental carer in rural communities.

John Thornton, D.M.D., who was chair of the SOD Department of Pediatric Dentistry at the time, helped establish the SEARCH program through a grant from the Alabama Department of Public Health. SEARCH has served Gadsden, Huntsville, Montgomery, Mobile including the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, and later Tuscaloosa.

rosie turner“Improving access to dental care in underserved areas was something that Dr. Thornton held close to his heart,” says Rosie Turner, a longtime administrative associate for the Department of Pediatric Dentistry. “In fact, he even brought Dr. Perng-Ru Liu on a visit to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians dental clinic.”

Thornton also secured a HRSA training grant which was instrumental in establishing a pediatric dentistry rotation to Lowndes County, between Montgomery and Selma, and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

Turner, who is now a Business Officer II, shares “We knew that many people in those areas were not getting the dental care they needed. Dr. Thornton wanted to ensure access to everyone, especially children.”

Research also was on the rise at the School of Dentistry in the early 2000s. In fact, by the middle of the decade the SOD had broken into the top 10 in research nationally, with nearly $7 million in funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. This included a one-year planning grant from the NIDCR that helped the school evaluate and reorganize its research infrastructure.

“To set the stage for growth in the research enterprise, the school received a U24 grant for infrastructure in the early 2000s, which allowed the school to renovate the research areas on our 7th and 8th floors,” says SOD associate dean of research Amjad Javed, Ph.D. “The modernized and expanded infrastructure, which provides the basis of what we use today, allowed us the ability to recruit several research-intensive faculty members, including Dr. Mary MacDougall as associate dean for research.”

In 2002, a Health Services Foundation grant enabled SOD faculty member Gregg Gilbert, D.D.S., to establish the first statewide practice-based research network, connecting the approximately 1,800 dentists in Alabama for help in conducting research projects. This eventually led to the formation of the National Dental Practice-Based Research Network, which is based at UAB.

The 2000s also saw the inception of the Institute of Oral Health Research in 2004 (which focuses on advancing oral health through active participation in basic science, translational and clinical research) and the Dental Academic Research Training (DART) program in 2007 (making the UAB SOD one of only 10 dental schools in the country to offer this type of training).

The decade’s research rush concluded in 2009 with the opening of the BioHorizons Clinical Research Facility on the school’s 6th floor. The clinic is a multi-use facility housing research projects to evaluate implants, crowns, new ceramic materials, digital impression devices and the latest dental materials. BioHorizons was founded in 1994 as a spin-off enterprise from UAB, and the company has since become one of the nation’s largest implant manufacturers.

Finally, in perhaps one of the most impactful changes that took place during the decade, the SOD initiated an overhaul and modernization of its curriculum. School officials determined that it would be best to emphasize the connection between basic-sciences coursework and actual patient care, then provide clinical experiences for students as early as possible. SOD students now enter the clinic nearly two years earlier than they did under the previous curriculum.

“The SOD predoctoral curriculum underwent a significant overhaul led by the Office of Academic Affairs, with participation from all faculty members,” says Ramzi Abou-Arraj, DDS, MS, interim associate dean for Academic Affairs. “These efforts culminated in an innovative and forward-thinking competency-based curriculum to support the SOD’s strong clinical experiences.”

“Our school adopted a systems-based approach to biomedical sciences, introduced professionalism, ethics and clinical sciences earlier in the curriculum, and created opportunities for early students’ exposure to patient care. The new SOD curriculum was designed to integrate the biomedical, behavioral and clinical sciences in our educational program.”

And to propel the School of Dentistry into the 2010s.