In this series, we are highlighting the experience of past winners of the Hayes Graduate Research Forum, which will take place virtually this year on April 9, 2021.

In our third installment, DDS and PhD Graduate Fellow, Michelle Scott, discusses her research, how the Hayes Forum helped her step out of her comfort zone and the importance of perseverance.

My first time presenting my research as a graduate student was as exciting as it was terrifying. What if I could not answer my judge’s questions? Or forgot how to explain the data analysis? Yet as daunting as it had been, it was in this space that I learned an essential aspect of being a graduate student: how to communicate my work. We spend a significant portion of our time diving further into our topics to understand as much as we can, but what good is this if we cannot explain our findings or reasoning? Since my first poster presentation, I have wanted to develop the skills necessary to communicate my science to all audiences. For me, the Hayes Forum marked stepping out of my comfort zone in dental and craniofacial sciences and into a space where my poster stood surrounded by all disciplines. Though I still have plenty to learn, being a part of last year’s Hayes Forum helped me to frame my research through a new lens and further develop the speaking abilities that will be crucial to my future goals.

My research is focused on the oral cavity and the oral microbiome, which is the complex microbial ecosystem that exists within our mouths. This environment is under a constant barrage from our everyday routines, and some of these behaviors can disrupt the delicate balance between our microbes and our immune system. One behavior that has been well studied is the impact of smoking cigarettes. Many studies have illustrated how cigarette smoke reduces beneficial bacteria, allowing pathogenic species to flourish and contributing to periodontal disease. E-cigarettes are an alternative to traditional cigarettes that are marketed as safer and healthier, but there is limited research into their health impact. My project presented at last year’s Hayes Forum focused on understanding how e-cigarettes impact the oral microbiome and bacterial metabolism. We saw that oral bacteria could metabolize the ingredients in e-cigarettes and the glycerol/glycol vehicle provided a carbon source that helped to fuel the significant increases in bacterial biofilm growth that we observed. Our next steps are to look at the interactions between the oral microbiome and human epithelial cells to understand how e-cigarettes impact the balance between our cells and our microbiome. My goal is to learn the necessary skillset to look at health as the combination of us and our microbes and understand how our lifestyles alter this balance.

Getting involved in research was one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience, and I encourage all students to try it out in at least some capacity. There are many great programs both on our campus and at other universities, ranging from volunteering to summer internships to research assistant jobs. I also urge students to present at as many conferences and forums as they can. It may not always go as expected, but the skills developed from presenting are applicable beyond just research. Even when things seem far from ideal, in those moments I have found that I grow the most. Some of my best presentations came after I forgot my poster or computer and had to drive back home to retrieve it. Even when a presentation feels failed from the start, persevering through this can sometimes produce better results than if things had gone as planned.