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Women Scientist Profiles

Martha Somerman, D.D.S.,Ph.D.

Martha Somerman, D.D.S.,Ph.D.

With a distinguished career in academic and clinical dentistry and research, Dr. Martha Somerman was appointed director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) in 2011. Even before becoming director of NIDCR, Dr. Somerman had a long history with NIH and NIDCR: she was a staff fellow in NIDCR’s intramural research program in the early 1980s, received her first NIH grant in 1987 while teaching at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (1984–1991), and served on NIDCR’s National Advisory Dental and Craniofacial Research Council from 1999 to 2002.

Throughout her life, Dr. Somerman has followed her passion as a clinician, an educator, and a scientist. Today, she continues to lead a research team in the Laboratory of Oral Connective Tissue Biology at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Her research, which has earned her international recognition, focuses on the molecular biology of dental-oral-craniofacial development, especially the periodontal complex. Her investigations are targeted at defining the key regulators controlling the development, maintenance, and regeneration of periodontal tissues.

Before becoming NIDCR’s director, Dr. Somerman had many academic and leadership roles. From 1991 to 2002, she was a professor and chair of periodontics/prevention and geriatrics at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and a professor of pharmacology at the University of Michigan Medical School. From 2002 to 2011, Dr. Somerman was the dean of the University of Washington School of Dentistry.

Dr. Somerman received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a D.D.S. from New York University, a master’s degree in environmental health from Hunter College, and a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Rochester. She completed her periodontal residency at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York.

What led you to dentistry?

I didn’t go straight to dental school from my undergraduate studies. While I taught in New York City’s public school system—painting murals and filling a variety of other positions as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do—I became aware of the art in dentistry. The dental-oral-craniofacial complex is unique to each individual, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it.

Was it unusual for a woman to choose dentistry at that time?

In my dental class, there were four women out of 200 students. I came in at the right time, and it was a wonderful opportunity. Today in the United States, the male/female ratio for dental school enrollment is nearly equal, and at some dental schools, the proportion of female students is greater!

How did you choose to specialize in periodontics?

When I was a student, dentistry wasn’t as science-based as it is now. So I pursued periodontics, an area of dentistry that—at the time—stood out as the most scientific in its approach to prevention and treatment.

What inspired you as a clinician to pursue a career in research?

Science is creative, collaborative, and culturally enriching; it’s an opportunity to play in your sandbox every day. You ask yourself some of the same questions in science that you use when you’re creating art; for instance, “How does it fit together?” and “Why does it fit together?” The diversity of scientific fields offers infinite opportunities for discovery, and new tools and technologies are being developed all the time.

As a clinical investigator, I have found a good balance between research and clinical dentistry. Even now, I participate in patient care; it requires me to think every day about the impact of our research on people and public health.

How has being an educator benefitted you?

Teaching helps me as an educator grow as an individual because I need to understand concepts thoroughly in order to teach them effectively to students. Sometimes students pose intriguing questions that challenge me to review the subject and improve my teaching approach. It’s an intellectual challenge for everyone.

How has mentorship (either as a mentee or a mentor) shaped your career?

I currently mentor several postdoctoral researchers in my lab. Through mentoring, I can share the excitement I feel about research discoveries, play a vital role in the learning experiences of students, and watch individuals grow and advance in their careers.

Throughout my career, I have had mentors and been a mentor, sometimes simultaneously. I gain as much from mentoring my students as they do. It goes both ways. It’s refreshing when a mentee has a new idea which generates a lively discussion. It can be a welcome change from the routine responsibilities of my day. You never stop learning in science, no matter where you are in your career.

Sometimes young scientists are a bit shy about getting to know other people, so a mentor’s role is critical when it comes to networking, introducing the student to helpful contacts, and making sure they have the time to present at meetings. It’s important for young scientists to visit different labs and conclude “I like that about this lab,” or “I don’t like that aspect of the work” at another lab. It’s important for them to see how different investigators run their labs, observe how the universities operate, and consider their preferences for their own future work.

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in science?

Sometimes people get stuck if they don’t pursue postdoctoral research because they don’t get the opportunity to plan and take steps toward their future career. No matter where you have your postdoctoral experience, it is critical to your future. The postdoctoral years allow students to explore different areas of research and discover their passions. Mine allowed me to refine my research direction, introduced me to networks of scientists, and helped me recognize that teaching was important to me as well.

It’s also useful to have many mentors because each one will have a different perspective. When you ask for a mentor’s advice, have some ideas about how you would conduct the research in question. Be sure to listen in earnest to the advice you get. But don’t be afraid to ask questions. I think perhaps junior scientists, especially women, are more hesitant to approach leaders and ask questions. Mentors want to support the work of their mentees; we become their advocates and fans, and a mentoring conversation can be the high point of the day.

This page last updated: August 9, 2018

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