After earning a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene from the University of Minnesota (UMN) in Minneapolis, Patricia Lenton, BSDH, MA, CCRP, taught as a clinical instructor for UMN’s Dental Hygiene Division and practiced clinically in both group and private practices. In 1989, she was recruited to serve as a clinical research examiner in the newly formed Oral Health Research Clinic at the UMN School of Dentistry. During this time, Lenton completed a Master of Arts in Education. Her thesis work involved developing standardized methods for training and calibrating research examiners to achieve high levels of reliability when obtaining periodontal assessment measures. In addition to research related to periodontal therapies, Lenton has also been involved in clinical studies related to: temporomandibular joint disorders, imaging technologies and composite restorations, electronic dental records, and oral malodor. In early 2017, she accepted a clinical operations manager position at 3M, where she works with product development teams to assist in designing the clinical trials needed to gather validation and performance evidence for product approvals and launch.
You have received significant funding to support your oral health research. Which project was the most meaningful to you?
My work in the area of oral malodor has been the most personally fulfilling. I became interested in breath odor in 1998. At the time, I had 9 years of clinical research experience and decided I would like to continue my career in oral health research. I was interested in finding an oral health area in which I, as a dental hygienist, could serve as the principal investigator. Around this same time, a colleague told me about a Canadian dental hygienist who had opened a clinic to treat patients with breath odor concerns. It occurred to me that breath odor-related research would be a great area for me to explore. There were several reasons for my interest: the etiology, assessment, and treatment of breath odor is poorly understood by many dental professionals; patients with breath odor issues have a difficult time finding professionals who can help them; the self-esteem and quality of life for those with oral malodor concerns are negatively impacted. I wanted to help these individuals, conduct meaningful research and then share my learnings with other dental professionals.
I ended up joining the International Society of Breath Odor Research (ISBOR) and collaborating with a gastroenterologist, Michael Levitt, MD, at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. Levitt studied the volatile sulfur compounds that make up intestinal gas and contribute to gastrointestinal problems. These same compounds make up breath odor. This collaboration led to me developing and running my own research projects, and, subsequently, to my creating continuing education programs to teach other dental professionals. Today, the ISBOR has morphed into the International Association for Halitosis Research. We still have a lot to learn about treating breath odor and I am looking forward to further collaboration with my colleagues who are also searching for a greater understanding of bad breath.
What advice would you give dental hygienists who are interested in the field of research?
Basic science research typically takes place in the laboratory. Clinical research is where the findings from basic science research are translated into clinical applications for treating oral diseases. Qualitative research looks at issues like quality of life, the effectiveness of various teaching methods, research related to human behaviors, population health research, and product development research, which typically takes place in Industry. I would encourage dental hygienists who are interested in research to begin by reading their professional journals, critically looking at the methods that were used in studies, and identifying an area of research they are interested in. Once they have identified this area, they should reach out to any contacts they have who are affiliated with universities, nonprofit organizations with members conducting research, and local industries involved in oral care product development. Seek opportunities to shadow someone who is involved in professional research, to participate as a healthy control to see the subject side of research, or to volunteer to assist with research activities. Research projects conducted at universities are often carried out on a part-time basis; meaning, faculty have a limited number of days they are available to work on their research. Therefore, if you have the flexibility to work a half day or one day a week in research, you may be able to actually work part-time on a project.
My introduction to clinical research involved accepting a temporary (1 year), part-time position (60%) as an examiner on a periodontal disease-related study. I took a pay reduction when I left private practice to accept the position in research because I understood that this was a unique opportunity and I wanted to explore this career option. I was very fortunate that the lead investigator was awarded a 5-year research center grant during that first year, which then provided me with a 5-year security blanket of funding. Many hygienists passed up the opportunity because of the lower pay and the temporary nature of the position. I was willing to take the chance on a possible opportunity and was very fortunate to stay funded for more than 27 years in my research position. Then, in January 2017, I was offered an industry position with 3M to assist teams developing oral care products in designing and carrying out the clinical studies needed to validate the performance of their products. I am putting my 27 years of clinical research experience to use in a different and exciting way. I truly enjoy continuously learning new skills and adding new tools to my professional toolbox. I wish that all dental hygienists would have the opportunity to work on at least one research project during their career.