Margherita Fontana, D.D.S., Ph.D., is a professor (tenured) in the Department of Cariology, Restorative Sciences and Endodontics at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. After receiving her dental degree from the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), Caracas, in 1990, she worked as a research assistant at the UCV Dental Research Institute, Dental School for two years while she also worked in private practice. In 1992 she moved to the United States to pursue her research interests and in 1996 completed a four-year Ph.D. program in dental sciences at Indiana University, Indianapolis.
She has always been very involved in teaching (problem based learning, laboratory and didactic) in cariology in the D.D.S., postdoctoral and dental hygiene programs. She is currently co-director of the cariology I and II courses, and cariology discipline co-coordinator at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry.
Fontana served in the full time faculty at Indiana University until 2009, serving there as director of the Microbial Caries Model Facility, which is part of the Oral Health Research Institute. There, she was also the director of the Oral Biofilms in Caries Assessment and Management Research Program; and director of Pre-doctoral Education (Caries Management Program) for the Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry. She currently maintains an affiliate position at Indiana University.
Fontana has an extensive clinical research background in childhood caries management, including risk assessment. As a principal investigator, she has received research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Association of Pediatric Dentistry, the Delta Dental Fund and private industry. In 2012 she received the United States Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for her work on caries risk assessment in children.
She has lectured as an invited speaker in different countries, being recognized for her work in the field of cariology. She was the first president of the Indiana Chapter of the Hispanic Dental Association, and additionally she has held memberships in other organizations. She has been an IADR/AADR member since 1992 and was the 2007 president of the IADR Cariology Research Scientific Group. She’s also a member of the IADR Education Research Scientific Group and at the IADR General Session in Cape Town, South Africa last month, she was elected as the president as that scientific group.
In May it was announced that the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and three other organizations across the state of Michigan will join forces in an effort to develop a comprehensive inter-professional program to reduce the burden of childhood dental disease in Michigan. The effort is made possible by the U.S. government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, which has awarded a $9.4 million grant to the Altarum Institute in Ann Arbor and collaborators including the School of Dentistry, Delta Dental of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Community Health. Fontana will provide her expertise and oversee University of Michigan staff and faculty involved in the project.
How did you first get involved with AADR?
I joined AADR when I came to the United States as a Ph.D. student. I earned my dental degree in Venezuela and some of my mentors were members of IADR. When I come to the U.S. to earn my Ph.D., I joined AADR that first year and have been attending meetings ever since.
What do you find to be the most valuable benefit of AADR membership?
I love AADR because it provides a unique opportunity to network with colleagues and discuss science. Nowadays science really cannot be done isolated—there was once a time when people could do science alone in their lab but those times are gone. We benefit from multidisciplinary science. One of the ways I can network with my colleagues from other areas of the country is by attending the AADR meetings, which gives people a platform to highlight their research and start collaborating on further research projects. By attending the meetings I’m also able to meet sponsors and people who fund research. One of the other many benefits of AADR is being part of a Scientific Group. I’m a member of the IADR Education Research Scientific Group. I’m not an education researcher, but as someone who does clinical research I understand the challenges of teaching the new generation of dentists—education research is essential. I’m delighted to be a member of the IADR Education Research Scientific Group and I’m delighted to learn from everyone else who is involved in that group. I love research, I love dentistry and I feel very privileged to be working in this field. I also feel privileged to work with so many wonderful colleagues in different areas of the country and the world.
What is the role AADR has played in your research career?
AADR has been integral to my research career. My current grants are all interdisciplinary from other universities. I have met most of those researchers at AADR and IADR meetings where I have seen them present and socialized with them. When I’m looking for new collaborators I choose someone who I think is the right scientist to bring on board but it also has to be someone with whom I’ll work well. The opportunity to learn the science and the social aspect of the person starts at the AADR and IADR meetings.
As a longtime AADR Annual Meeting attendee, why is it important for you to regularly attend these meetings?
For me, the meetings are an essential part of moving my projects forward. Now at this stage of my career I use the meetings to meet with collaborators face-to-face. The meetings provide opportunities for me to meet with my collaborators from across the country once a year, and it’s also an opportunity to talk to sponsors, and discuss my research with them and learn about funding opportunities as a group. I’m not sure if we could do the type of science we do without having the AADR meetings and being able to meet once a year, face-to-face with our colleagues is necessary for my research.
What would you say to junior researchers to encourage them to cross-collaborate with other scientific disciplines?
I think it’s essential to cross collaborate. I think for any researcher it’s important to have the right mentor who can introduce you to opportunities you didn’t know existed. Sometimes those opportunities are outside of your field. Many universities are really trying to push through internal grant opportunities for people from different disciplines to meet each other and spark ideas. There might be a solution to your research in another field and someone who works in a completely different field is able to apply for the grant. These grant opportunities are huge and it can be difficult if you have never ventured outside of your area of interest. However, I think that’s when having a network of colleagues and mentors who can connect you with the right groups is valuable. There’s enrichment in hearing people from other disciplines and learning about their research—it can lead to new research ideas and collaborations.