Patricia Diaz, DDS, PhD, 2006 Educator Scholar, 2012 Tarrson Fellow:
1. What is your research focus?
My laboratory studies the ecology of complex microbial communities associated with periodontitis. We conduct human clinical studies and use genomic approaches to characterize shifts in the subgingival microbiota as disease develops. These clinical studies are coupled with in vitro investigations to find key inter-species interactions among members of subgingival microbial communities. We believe understanding antagonistic or synergistic interactions among species may hold the key to discover potential preventive or therapeutic targets for periodontitis.
2. What has/have been the most significant contribution(s) of your research to our specialty?
Decades of research efforts by the periodontal microbiology community have been instrumental in understanding changes in the subgingival microbiota associated with periodontitis. However, only recently, with the advent of high throughput sequencing, we were able to obtain a global view of the shifts in the microbiota from health to disease. My laboratory was one of the first groups to develop methodologies to characterize the oral microbiome via high throughput sequencing. One of our clinical studies (Abusleme et al. ISME J. 2013) identified the most prevalent and abundant health- and periodontitis-associated bacterial species. We also discovered a group we named "core-species" which we proposed may serve a critical role as metabolic anchors in subgingival communities.
3. What are some future directions of your research program?
Our human clinical studies will continue to use high throughput sequencing to characterize microbial populations in periodontitis at the 16S rRNA and metagenomic levels uncovering their association with different site-specific and host level modifiers. In parallel we are also developing relevant models to uncover the host and environmental factors and inter-species relationships important for the establishment of pathogenic communities. Our models include continuous culture systems and periodontitis animal models using polymicrobial communities. Our long term goal is to understand the ecological events that lead to the colonization/overgrowth of disease-associated species and develop ecology-based strategies for periodontitis prevention and treatment.
4. What influence did the support from the Foundation have on your career as a researcher?
Obtaining support from the Foundation early in my research career motivated me to pursue my academic goals. Recognition for what I had achieved until the time I received the awards was important, but I also saw these awards as an "act of faith". The Foundation has trusted me to conduct high-caliber research and commit to periodontal education. I still feel to this day that I do not want to disappoint this trust and I owe it to the Foundation to try my best every day. Although I am still at the beginning of my research career, I hope my research efforts significantly contribute to advance knowledge in our specialty.