Tooth and Consequences

By Doug Gillett

Sonia Nkashama
Sonia Nkashama

Sonia Nkashama is more than a fourth-year dental student—she’s a salesperson for the dental field, and her target audience includes all ages. She hit the younger end of the spectrum two years ago by working with several summer camps to produce “Sammy Shark’s Smile Squad,” an oral-health education program for kids ages 8 to 13. The program covered everything from brushing and flossing techniques to proper diet and ways to protect the teeth while playing sports. Nkashama says these are things that “a lot of children just haven’t been taught,” particularly in low-income parts of Alabama. Pre- and post-program surveys showed that the kids were “definitely taking in a lot of what we were teaching them.”

Through her work with the Student National Dental Association (SNDA)—she served as president of the UAB chapter this past year—Nkashama has been reaching out to older audiences through oral-health fairs and screenings at schools, churches, and community centers. Along with checkups, she also has been selling oral health as a career choice: Some of the SNDA’s primary goals are to educate high-schoolers and college undergraduates about dentistry and increase minority representation in the dental profession.

“I think that the medical field has done a good job” promoting itself and building credibility with the public, Nkashama says. “You go to the doctor if you’re sick. But you can also go to the dentist if you’re sick, too—if you have a tooth problem, it may be connected to something else that’s going on in your body. We try to make as many connections as we can with the younger students and show we’re more than just ‘tooth technicians’—we’re more like oral physicians.”

Nkashama’s outreach efforts helped earn her one of UAB’s President’s Awards for Diversity in 2010. Her boundary-breaking mindset comes naturally—Nkashama was born in Belgium, and her parents are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her mother received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UAB, and her father, Mubenga, is a professor in the Department of Mathematics. “I apologize in advance to anyone who’s taken any of his classes,” she says with a laugh. “He’s a great professor, but he’s definitely one who will challenge you.” The connections continue with Nkashama’s sister, Ashleigh, who is now an undergraduate pre-nursing student on campus. “UAB has been a big part of my life since we’ve been in Birmingham,” she says.

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Tiny Dancer: Kate Stribling

By Grant Martin

Kate Stribling
Kate Stribling, right, teaches dance to an 11-year-old as a form of physical therapy.

Kate Stribling has been dancing most of her life, first as a participant and later as an instructor. Recently, however, she has started to look at her pastime from a new angle—as a scientist.

Stribling, a doctoral student in the physical therapy program at UAB, is melding her professional and personal interests to study the therapeutic benefits of dance. Over the course of three months, she worked with an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, teaching her moves that put a new spin on physical therapy exercises.

“Physical therapy can be pretty demanding,” Stribling says. “Dancing helps patients accomplish the exercises while having fun. It also requires a wide range of movement—and movement in all planes as opposed to straightforward, up-and-down exercises. We hope that will translate into better movement and better posture for therapy patients.”

Stribling has been teaching dancing classes for more than a decade. In 2008, she helped start a class for children with special needs. “These kids really seemed to enjoy it, and it was obviously good for them to exercise,” she says.

After enrolling in the physical therapy program at UAB, Stribling continued teaching dance to special-needs children. She wasn’t surprised when she saw a newspaper article about a 30-year-old man with cerebral palsy who had achieved amazing results through dance.

“This man had done physical therapy for most of his life, but it wasn’t until he began dancing that he saw this dramatic change,” Stribling says. “He looked like a typical individual with no disability at all. Of course, this was an anecdotal story, not a scientific study.”

Stribling decided to undertake that study, and she found an ideal candidate in her 11-year-old partner. Stribling is now analyzing the results of their dozen-plus sessions, but she says she is confident that the dance therapy was effective. “This is a child who has been in physical therapy her whole life, but I believe I have seen a difference in her spatial awareness and general body awareness during the course of this study.”

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Good as Gold

By Caperton Gillett

Becoming a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar is not a simple task. No more than 300 of the prestigious scholarships, which fund research and promote excellence in science, mathematics, and engineering, are awarded to students across the country each year. In addition, each winner must first be nominated by college and university faculty and evaluated on the basis of academic merit. In 2010, however, UAB students won three of the 278 Goldwater scholarships awarded.


Junior chemistry major Tamara Burleson

Burleson is a researcher in the lab of Christopher Willey, M.D., investigating the links between different proteins and the effectiveness of radiation treatment. That research should be useful later in her career—Burleson plans to go to medical school to become a research physician specializing in medical oncology. “For me, this is the top honor you can have as an undergraduate,” Burleson says.

Atbin Dordchi

Sophomore Atbin Dorodchi

Dorodchi is pursuing a double major in biology and mathematics. Currently researching roundworms with Yuqing Li, Ph.D., to explore a susceptibility gene for restless legs syndrome, Doroodchi plans to enroll in an M.D./Ph.D. program, obtain a doctorate in cell biology, and specialize in neurology. He hopes to work either as a professor at a leading research university or as a researcher with the NIH. Receiving the award “was a great honor,” Doroodchi says, “and the faculty who wrote my recommendation letters were great supporters throughout the process.”

Shweta Patel

PatelPatel is a junior majoring in molecular biology. After two summers of intensive research through prestigious programs at UAB and the University of California-Berkeley, Patel currently is working in the UAB lab of Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D., investigating the role of natural dietary compounds in breast-cancer prevention. She plans to attend medical school for a career in academic medicine and translational research. “I was elated when I heard I won the scholarship,” Patel says. “I was excited that all my hard work paid off.”

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