AADR Strides in Science is a feature highlighting an AADR member’s accomplishments and comments on how his/her involvement with the AADR has been an important part of his/her career in research. If you would like to nominate a colleague to be featured, please send his/her name to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary L. Marazita, Ph.D., has been a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh since 1993 and is currently the Associate Dean for Research, Vice Chair of Oral Biology and a Professor (Oral Biology, Human Genetics, Psychiatry and the Clinical & Translational Science Institute). She has been a member of AADR since 1991.
Marazita earned her B.S. in Animal Husbandry from Michigan State University, her Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and her post-doc in Craniofacial Biology from the University of Southern California.
She has many years of experience in applying the techniques of statistical genetics and genetic epidemiology to multiple complex human traits (craniofacial birth defects, oral health traits, behavioral traits, premature birth, and others), including many studies of the genetics and phenotypes in nonsyndromic orofacial clefting families. On a current grant, she serves as a co-investigator with Astanand Jugessur and AADR member Jeffrey Murray et al. to facilitate the transmission and analysis of data (genotypes, phenotypes, pregnancy exposures) for a population-based sample of nuclear trios that were ascertained in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for her ongoing studies of oral health and disease. This research was also featured in the May issue of the AADR Science Advocate.
Marazita is also the Principal Investigator of “Extending the Phenotype of Nonsyndromic Orofacial Clefts” and “Factors Contributing to Oral Health Disparities in Appalachia,” and she is a co-Principal Investigator of “FaceBase Management and Coordination Hub,” “3D Analysis of Normal Facial Variation: Data Repository and Genetics (Research),” and co-investigator of “Genetics of Caries” and “A Family and Population Approach to Gene Discovery for Preterm Birth.” Her studies have been published in various journals, including the IADR/AADR Journal of Dental Research. Marazita recently co-authored a JDR article titled “Taste Genes Associated with Dental Caries.” This research generated much interest and is significant in that it identifies key genes that may explain the susceptibilities of some patients to tooth decay.
How would you describe your experience the first time you presented at an AADR meeting?
The first time I presented at an AADR meeting, I was a little concerned about presenting my research because I’m a geneticist. I wasn’t sure how a geneticist would be viewed by all of the dental research professionals who had been involved in dental research much longer than I had been at the time. However, I found the community to be very welcoming and I was impressed with the quality of research that was presented. There was a lot of really good craniofacial research presented, which was my major topic the first time I presented. The AADR and IADR meetings are really the best meetings I attend to get an over-view of what people involved in dental and craniofacial research are doing.
What are you currently researching?
I’m the director of the Center for Craniofacial and Dental Genetics and we are investigating craniofacial birth defects, primarily cleft lip and palate; and also dental disorders, primarily dental caries. We have a large project ongoing that has the title “Factors Contributing to Oral Health Disparities in Appalachia.” We’re trying to tease out the various factors that contribute to the very poor oral health in Appalachia. As a geneticist I’m very interested in the genetic part of that but we’re also looking at other facets such as diet, life experiences, oral health and medical health history, the home environment, and other factors such as fluoride in the water and access to dental care. There certainly is also a component in that region related to access to care, but there’s no concrete understanding of what led to the poor oral health other than the poor access to care. There are excellent providers in Appalachia but there is poor oral health in that region.
On the cleft lip and palate side, we have several large projects ongoing with an international focus; we have collaborators on nearly every continent. We’re trying to look at those birth defects in the context of physical features that are seen in other family members. What we have found is that in a family, there can be people who are carrying the risk genes but not expressing the birth defect. Our hypothesis is there are things you can measure in the unaffected family members that reflect carrying the gene but for whatever reason those family members didn’t end up with the cleft. We’re examining physical features and trying to use that information to better understand the genetics that lead to those birth defects.
What role does cross-collaboration have in helping you complete your research?
The cross-collaboration aspect is critical. Now that I have been at the University of Pittsburgh and been involved with other dental researchers, there are a lot of opportunities for networking and cross collaboration. One of the most recent examples of that is that people who are part of AADR and in dental schools that also have a clinical and translational science institute are now meeting regularly to develop some cross-institution research initiatives. I think that is going to be an exciting way to leverage our common interests that first began in AADR.
How are you encouraging your students to pursue careers in craniofacial and dental research?
We have recently developed an understanding in the Department of Genetics that we are going to start a concentration for the Ph.D. students in craniofacial and dental research. Those students will have a Ph.D. in human genetics but they can do a concentration where they take certain courses to hopefully entice them into a career of craniofacial and dental research. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the genetics of these disorders. We’re learning more every day and there are still wide open areas for learning more.