Rella Christensen, RDH, PhD

Currently, Rella Christensen, RDH, PhD, leads TRAC Research, which is part of the nonprofit educational Clinicians Report Foundation, an organization she co-founded and directed for 27 years. TRAC Research is devoted to oral microbiology, minimally invasive dentistry, and dental restoratives research. Throughout her career, Christensen’s work has focused on the development of practice-based controlled clinical protocols to monitor treatments and outcomes as they occur in actual clinical dental offices. A practicing dental hygienist for 25 years, she also worked as a laboratory technician fabricating cast gold and ceramic restorations, in addition to founding and directing the Expanded Function Dental Hygiene Program at the University of Colorado School of Dentistry in Aurora. Earning a PhD in physiology with an emphasis on microbiology from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Christensen also completed post-graduate training at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg under the W.E.C. Moore team, noted pioneers in anaerobic microbiology. She has taught at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels, authored many research abstracts and reports, and received numerous honors.

QWhich research topic has most fascinated you and why?

AAlthough my teams and I have had the opportunity to delve deeply into many different topics of high relevance to dental clinicians over my many years in practice-based product and technique research, for me, oral microbiology has been the most fascinating. I am appalled at the incredible concentrations of the microbes we are finding in saliva, dental caries lesions, and periodontal pockets. We have developed techniques that allow us not only to quantify the organisms present, but also to identify them by genus and species, and map their locations. This work has helped me gain new insights into why some treatments we render as clinicians sound logical but do not result in successful outcomes. It turns out that microbes are far more numerous, resilient, and sophisticated than we were all taught.

In our work, we see the incredible abilities of the microbes to insure their survival. They communicate with each other, they move back and forth between aerobic and anaerobic pathways, they develop ways to evade our chemicals, and they have an unbelievable capacity to increase their numbers rapidly over short periods of time. Because their size renders them invisible to our eyes, we like to think we have eliminated them. I am sure we have all wondered why the pathologies we have worked so hard to treat sometimes improve, but do not resolve. We wonder why we end up managing diseases, but we can seldom claim a cure. I believe future microbe research will reveal answers to these dilemmas.

I believe dental hygienists are uniquely positioned to be at the clinical forefront of oral microbiology in the future. Everything we thought we knew about microbes is changing. Molecular biology techniques are changing the microbes themselves, as well as using microbes to edit parts of the human genome that code for pathologies. To me, this is indeed most fascinating!

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