Dentistry and Research are Linked for One FSC Graduate

May 23, 2018

by Dr. Nancy Morvillo
Professor of Biology

What does it take to get into a professional school? While there is no set formula, Blake Crosby ’17 had the right combination as a successful and well-rounded student with an authentic desire to serve others and a keen interest in research. 

I met Blake Crosby even before he entered FSC as a Biology Major. He always had his sights set on dental school and never wavered from this goal.

In addition to succeeding in required coursework and gaining experience by shadowing professionals, Blake was very involved on campus. He held leadership roles in his fraternity and was a Senator in our Student Government Association. He helped his peers through mentoring and tutoring. And he shared his passion for dentistry by founding the Pre-Dental Society and serving as the first president of the organization.

But the one thing that really set Blake apart from other pre-dental students was the extensive research experiences he had as an undergraduate student.

As a freshman, Blake was among the first students to take part in the Small World Initiative, a partnership between FSC and Yale University. The Initiative consists of a laboratory curriculum designed to introduce students to authentic research early in their undergraduate careers. In our introductory Biology course, students search for novel antibiotics in soil bacteria to combat the global antibiotic resistance crisis.

I looked back at a reflection paper Blake wrote for the Small World Initiative.

Dr. Morvillo and Blake during the summer they worked together.
Dr. Morvillo and Blake during the summer they worked together.

“As a freshman, this has given me a huge head-start with research against other students my age who have not had the opportunity,” he commented. “It showed me many different techniques and abilities that I will use later on in my scientific studies. Bacteria interest me and I could see myself working with them in the future.”

After his experience with the Small World Initiative, Blake continued doing research. With the generous support of a grant from the Vaughn-Jordan Foundation, he worked with me the summer after his first year, identifying the genetic relatedness of some of the rose varieties we grow on campus. Through this project, Blake learned how to isolate and analyze DNA. And in his junior year, he studied parasites that infect brown anole lizards.

For his senior research, Blake designed a project that combined his interests in dentistry and bacteria. He compared the specific types of bacteria found in the gums of healthy and unhealthy dental patients by using molecular methods. His advisor, Dr. Melanie Langford, will submit the results this summer for publication.

His hard work paid off: Blake was accepted to the College of Dentistry at the University of Florida.

Blake also applied for, and was accepted into a competitive research program at UF in the summer of 2017, before even beginning dental school. Last week, Blake came back to campus to talk to the members of the Pre-Dental Society. He spoke about his research at UF, “Methylation status of genes involved in the TLR hyper-response of localized aggressive periodontitis patients.”

Blake worked with Dr. Luciana Shaddox, an Associate Professor in the Department of Periodontology at UF. Dr. Shaddox’s team researches an extremely rare type of periodontitis, an inflammation of the gums, that can cause severe bone deterioration and tooth loss. The research evaluates the impact of treating patients with antibiotics to eliminate the bacterial infections causing the inflammation.

The clinical results were significant. “Patients showed repair of bones,” Blake said.

Blake’s role in this project was to examine the DNA of the patients. He looked for a type of alteration known as methylation, the addition of a specific chemical group to DNA that can modify gene expression. Methylation is not a mutation of the DNA, but rather a reversible change that occurs in response to the environment, such as a bacterial infection. Changes in the normal methylation pattern can have substantial consequences on a patient’s health.

Blake compared results from patients with periodontitis and healthy individuals. All in all, he processed a total of 220 samples.

“I was selected for this project due to the research I did at FSC,” Blake said.

When Blake examined the DNA methylation patterns, he found some interesting results. There were differences in these patterns between periodontitis patients and healthy individuals, and the methylation patterns in patients began returning to normal after they were treated with antibiotics.

“Further studies need to be conducted to understand the role of methylation in initiation, progression and treatment,” Blake said. He is expanding his research by examining more regions in the DNA to better understand these changes.

Blake presenting his research to the FSC Pre-Dental Society.
Blake presenting his research to the FSC Pre-Dental Society.

Blake presented the results of his summer research at the 2018 American Association for Dental Research (AADR) meeting in March. He also presented his work at UF, taking first place in the Spring Synergy, a forum for faculty, staff and students in the dental school to present their research.

Due to his success at the Spring Synergy and winning first place, Blake will travel to Vancouver to present his research to an international audience at next year’s AADR meeting.

Blake’s talk at FSC was well received by the Pre-Dental Society students.

When asked why research on such a rare condition was important, Blake said, “We need to make dentists more aware of this problem- it is out there. It starts at an early age- we see kids with it at five years old.”

Early detection is important. “If you can catch it early, you can treat it earlier and have a better outcome,” Blake explained.

I asked Blake if he ever thought, as a dentist, he would be working with DNA. Blake was very philosophical in his answer.

“There are different ways to apply knowledge,” he said. “Your skills can be used in your career. There’s a way to utilize skills no matter what they are.”

His advice to pre-dental students? “Work hard. Don’t worry about grades too much. Get involved, have fun, and enjoy what you’re studying.”

Blake is finishing his first year in dental school on a very successful note, and, in typical fashion, he is still passionate about working with others and giving back. He is involved in student government at UF, and works with the admissions team for summer programs. He expects to be more involved with the Admissions Board in the future, and loves to reach out and share his passion with pre-dental students.

“You have an exciting road ahead of you,” Blake told our students. “You’re going to learn so much. I’ve learned more than I ever imagined.”