Dr. Jennifer Gibbs joined Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) in September as a member of the faculty and director of Endodontics. She comes to HSDM most recently from NYU College of Dentistry where she was assistant professor of Endodontics.
Could you describe the path that led you to the field of endodontics?
It was my PhD training in the neurobiology of nociceptors (pain detecting neurons) that led me to endodontics. As a PhD student at University of Texas San Antonio I joined the lab of Ken Hargreaves, who is a neuroscientist and endodontist. I was first exposed to endodontics during this training period. Later I decided to go to dental school, and it was there that I learned that pain interpretation and pain management are essential to the practice of endodontics. It was pretty clear to me then, given my research focus, that endodontics was the specialty for me. I decided to go to UCSF for my endodontic training so that I could pursue post-doctoral research training with Allan Basbaum, a prominent pain scientist, that would overlap with my residency. I then became a faculty member at UCSF, and have remained an academic endodontist scientist since then.
What excites you about coming to Harvard and taking the role of director for endodontics?
So many things! First, I'm really thrilled about being a part of the community at HSDM. It goes without saying, that being a part of Harvard, arguably the best institution in the world for scholarship, education, and research, is a great honor and beyond exciting. However, it was very striking to me during my interviews that the community at HSDM is uniquely positive, supportive, and humanistic. This is something really special about Harvard that is generally difficult to achieve in academia. My predecessor, Dr. Bob White, has done an incredible job creating a nurturing, and even familial culture within the endodontic division, and I am very excited to be a part of it and continue that tradition.
Second, I am quite excited for the opportunity to challenge myself through serving as a leader at HSDM and in endodontics. Although I've had opportunities for leadership in science, this is my first time as a division director, and I'm looking forward to serving in this role. There are a lot of changes happening in endodontics, such as renewed interests in vital pulp and regenerative therapies. I look forward to the challenge of leading Harvard Endodontics during these interesting times.
As an educator, what do you feel is important to the learning process? What kind of experience do you hope postdoctoral students will have in the program?
I think the right balance of empowerment, curiosity, and humbleness are essential to learning. Technical and clinical confidence will come over time during residency training. I think the most valuable learning happens when students stretch themselves out of their comfort zone and accomplish something they never thought possible. This could be giving an oral presentation for a national conference, publishing a manuscript, or organizing a community outreach event. Now it's not just learning but also personal growth that is accomplished. Curiosity is essential for students to work outside of their comfort zone, and keep asking questions. Humbleness comes when you expand your knowledge base enough to realize how much remains unknown. When this level of learning happens we become humbled by the fact that we have no choice but to be lifelong learners.
My goal is for postdoctoral students is first to have ample experiences to become fully confident in their clinical skills. Then, to stretch themselves to accomplish things during the program that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives. Finally, to cultivate curiosity and humbleness during the program so that students leave the program dedicated to the process of life long learning. Our postdoctoral students will leave with the skills needed to be endodontic leaders in whatever capacity that appeals to them.
Could you describe your research interests and the work you’ve done as a neuroscientist?
The dental pulp is seemingly hard wired for pain, and my research has focused on understanding basic neurobiology of the dental pulp. My research group found that large diameter neurons, that typically convey the sensation are light touch, are more prevalent in dental pulp, while paradoxically, classical pain fibers are underrepresented. The reason for the unique innervation of the pulp is still not clear, and it remains intriguing to me. We also established that nerve injury signaling lasts long after tooth injury, suggesting a potential mechanism for persistent dental pain. This is important because it is still underrecognized that routine dental procedures, like root canal treatment, can produce chronic pain. Complementing this work, we are currently conducting a clinical study measuring pain after endodontic surgery. This will help identify predictive clinical and biological factors associated with poor pain outcomes after surgery. The problem of persistent pain after dental injuries is difficult and important to understand, because the lack of recognition often leads to multiple unnecessary dental procedures.
More recently, my group, mostly through the efforts of Dr. Benoit Michot, has investigated the mechanisms by which bacterial toxins such as lipopolysaccharide (LPS) produce pain. This is relevant to many painful oral conditions including pulpitis. We've been working to understand the receptors through which LPS activates pain fibers and found that it depends on two very different types of receptors. First, the classic toll-like receptor TLR4, which is established as the receptor for LPS, is essential to activate neurons. Interestingly, TRPA1, an important ion channel for detecting noxious stimuli on nociceptors, is also required. We think that the TRPA1 channel is a very good target for controlling bacterial mediated pain as occurs in pulpitis.
As a newcomer to Boston, what are you hoping to learn or experience here?
Moving here from New York City I'm looking forward to the (hopefully) slightly slower pace of life. We found a place to live on a quiet tree lined street and I'm really enjoying this little taste of suburbia. The thing my husband and I are most excited about is having better access to nature here. We want to take our daughter camping and hiking more often and look forward to exploring New England. I also look forward to going to a Celtics game. I love basketball and the Celtics are a great team that I have followed over the years. Although it's way too early to talk about being a fan yet, and my allegiance in basketball is fully with the San Antonio Spurs, let's just say I'm looking forward to seeing where this relationship with the Celtics goes!