Iraqi-born undergraduate finds passion in oral health research
Student, ambassador, tutor, mentee, volunteer – human health sciences major Amina Nouri wears many hats during her typical week. However, she steps into her most unique role when she gears up to conduct dental research with the UK College of Dentistry’s Dr. Octavio Gonzalez. Nouri is among an elite group of students selected to participate in the UK College of Health Sciences’ undergraduate research program.
Nouri, now a junior, is two years into her research. She works alongside Gonzalez in both the clinic and the lab, where the pair is exploring solutions to periodontal disease. Also known as gum disease, periodontitis describes the infection and inflammation of the gums that results in destruction of the bone surrounding and supporting the teeth.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), half of Americans 30 years and older have some form of periodontal disease. That incidence increases to 70 percent for adults 65 and older, which makes periodontal disease one of the most prolific oral health issues facing Americans.
A lifelong interest in medicine
A deep interest in oral health and dentistry has been a lifetime in the making for Nouri, a native of Baghdad. Born to a mechanical engineer father and OB-GYN mother, she was always taught that persistence is a virtue. Rising tension from extremist groups forced Nouri’s family to flee to Jordan without her father when she was just 9 years old. Her father wouldn’t be permitted to reunite with their family for more than two years.
Amid intense conflict, Nouri’s mother would serve as a source of inspiration for her young daughter and contribute to her interest in healthcare.
“There weren’t enough physicians during the war, so my mother was recruited to help treat injured soldiers,” Nouri said. “She would always take me with her, and I saw firsthand the impact that she had. My parents always instilled in me the importance of being kind to others and giving back.”
Seeing dentistry's impact
Nouri became interested in dentistry specifically after attending a dentist appointment with her aunt who was plagued by severe tooth pain.
“I saw how much pain she was in – then I saw how the dentist was able not only to alleviate her pain but comfort and calm her," Nouri said. "She was so happy and relieved afterward. I wanted to be able to do that for people.”
In 2009, Nouri’s family moved to the U.S., and 2019 will mark five years since she officially became a U.S. citizen.
In high school, Nouri began to shadow Lexington dentists and quickly realized the personal impact of the profession.
“To most people, dentistry is only about taking care of your teeth,” she said. “But your dental health is a gateway to your overall health. There’s solid evidence that indicates periodontal disease is a risk factor for diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”
For Nouri, early research experience provides an exceptional opportunity to better the quality of healthcare, thus improving a patient’s quality of life.
“People whose periodontal disease is in its early stages may not recognize the signs, leading it to progress and become more severe,” Nouri said. “If we were to find a mechanism to stop the growth of certain pathogens, or block their strategies to trigger gum inflammation, we could influence millions of people.”
Gonzalez, an associate professor in the UK College of Dentistry, spends eight to 10 hours each week conducting experiments with Nouri. For him, serving as a faculty mentor to undergrads provides a unique opportunity to connect with students who have an indisputable passion for learning.
“Undergraduate students working in our group are always eager to learn, execute and generate data," Gonzalez said. "It’s an enormous responsibility to mentor undergrads because their research experience will have a significant impact in their future professional and scientific decisions.”
Working beyond the lab
Nouri’s passion for oral health research and treatment extends beyond her hours in the lab. In fact, her research and volunteer work go hand in hand. She regularly volunteers at Mission Lexington’s free dental clinic and completes eight hours of shadowing each week.
“Learning is a never-ending process, and the best way to learn is to immerse yourself in whatever field you choose,” said Nouri. “Research is a great way to invest in your future profession. Shadowing allows me to see the clinical applications of what I study in the lab.”
Nouri encourages all undergraduate students to pursue their research interests early on and emphasizes the abundance of benefits to be gleaned both inside and outside of the lab. Being paired with a diligent faculty mentor has resulted in better time management skills, created opportunities to network and connect with experienced professionals, and allowed for the exploration of new subfields and specialties.
“Dr. Gonzalez has a wealth of knowledge, and I am beyond grateful to have a mentor as passionate as he is,” she said. “He truly cares for his students’ success and wants us to understand the theory behind what we are doing in the lab. He has inspired me to become a better student and future clinician, and I cannot thank him enough.”
Gonzalez also shared encouraging words for undergraduate students interested in research, stating that it provides a new perspective for improving their capacity to observe, generate new questions and proposals for solutions associated with their chosen field of study.
“The work and contributions of undergraduate students in science are supporting and strengthening the mission of our university, in which research is one of the most critical pillars,” he said.