Taking the lead on research

Karolin Hijazi is blazing a trail at Aberdeen Dental School as the school’s newly appointed research committee chair

10 April, 2017 / indepth
 Bruce Oxley    Mark Jackson

It is sometimes easy to forget just how young Aberdeen Dental School actually is. Despite being part of the fifth oldest university in the UK – Aberdeen was founded in 1495 – the dental school
was only established in 2008.

Despite its relative youth, the school has been through quite a lot in the last nine years. From being heralded as the answer to the north east’s chronic shortage of dentists to a current situation where the talk is now of too many dentists and, in some corners, too many dental schools. And, that’s not even mentioning the much-publicised GDC inspections and subsequent reports.

The school is a now a much different place than it was two years ago, let alone nine. It has a new dean in Professor Richard Ibbetson who has worked very hard to turn the school around and build its reputation and standing in Scotland and the wider world. One of the keys to that strategy has been the formation of a research committee, which is chaired by Italian-born dental researcher Karolin Hijazi.

I want to further expand this team and build a centre of excellence for oral health research

Karolin Hijazi

Developing an interest

Born in Tuscany, Karolin completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Siena where she developed an interest in molecular biology relating to oral health. She said: “During my studies, I realised that dentistry wasn’t just about drilling teeth. I was fascinated by some work on microbiology and immunology that one of my professors was leading on.

“The work was aimed at producing molecules that can be used as vaccines in live bacteria to be administered orally and can, in essence, live in people’s mouths and produce the vaccine continuously. This was designed to be a safe and long-lasting delivery strategy.”

Karolin explained that they were working on a range of molecules, from a protein of Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with peptic ulcers, and all the way to proteins of HIV. This work was where she developed a specific interest in HIV and, after graduating in 2004 and following a brief spell in general practice, she moved to Kings College London (KCL) to embark on a PhD. During her time in London, she diversified her experience of the development of preventive strategies for HIV. She said: “At the time there was an urgent need for preventive measures in some developing countries as access to anti-retroviral therapy was literally non-existent. Now there is some but it is far from being enough to contain the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.”

After completing her PhD in 2008, she took a short maternity break before returning to KCL to work as a post-doctoral research associate. During her time in London she trained in oral medicine and, when a job opportunity came up in Aberdeen in 2011 that would allow her to continue her clinical work and develop her experience in teaching, she jumped at the chance. The position also provided the opportunity to develop her research portfolio and become an independent researcher in her own right.

In addition to continuing her work on microbicides against HIV, she now leads a variety of research projects aimed at understanding how host-pathogen interactions and the mucosal environment can be targeted to develop novel strategies to control microbial diseases.

She joined Aberdeen as a clinical lecturer and has since been promoted to senior clinical lecturer and last year was named chairperson of the research committee. Since taking on this role she has developed a strategy for research focusing on four key themes: pedagogic innovation in dentistry, microbial diseases, population oral health, and head and neck cancer.

The mission statement of the new three-year research strategy (2017-2020) is: “To build a world-leading centre in oral health research, training, outreach and knowledge exchange to address global issues in oral health.” Karolin explained that, as well as identifying members of staff who now lead on the specific themes mentioned in the strategy, her role is to assist and guide colleagues to help achieve targets and ensure that the aims of the strategy are ultimately met.

She said: “Research work can be challenging and you have to be patient. It can take a long time to produce a meaningful output – an output which is mostly defined by the university as
a REF-returnable publication or a grant award.

“Most of researchers’ time is dedicated to securing grant funding – this is the primary expectation of a researcher together with generating publications that can contribute to the REF (Research Excellence Framework) process – this determines quite a big chunk of the research excellence grant that the university receives from the Scottish Funding Council.”

Funding pressures

As with any research environment, money is a major pressure. Karolin said: “The pressures of securing funding and getting work published in good journals are significant, also bearing in mind that the majority of us have quite diverse roles – we contribute to the NHS service, we teach – so it is quite a lot and it can be challenging to keep on top of it.”

And these challenges are not helped by the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit. Karolin explained that most of her funding
comes from the EU and, despite promises from institutions that access to research funding will not be compromised, the future is uncertain.

She said: “Anecdotal evidence from colleagues suggests that there has already been a reputational damage with European institutions being less keen to approach UK institutions to initiate collaborative projects.

“This just adds to an already very difficult financial climate where Research Councils UK funding has become tighter. It is difficult and competitive enough as it is.”

And Karolin argues that Brexit could also have an effect on the student population itself. She said: “It could cause considerable damage in terms of the diversity of postgraduate and even undergraduate student populations that we have. It could be a significant loss.

“A large proportion of our postgraduate students are EU students who benefit from affordable tuition fees. When you look at it, a European student currently pays £3,500 a year for PhD studentships, compared with £15,000 a year for international students. So, all European students would become international students and I think they will be less keen to come here despite the very good research environment that we offer.”

A school on the up

Despite these pressures, Karolin and her colleagues remain incredibly motivated and optimistic about the future of research at Aberdeen. She said: “I want to further expand this team and build a centre of excellence for oral health research. I want to see it become a hub for internationalisation in dental research and to attract more international students.”

And, even taking into account the challenges that the school has faced, and come through, in recent years, Karolin is confident that they are more than capable of continuing to produce significant work.

She said: “I think we are on the up and it is a very good time for us now, both in terms of internal and external collaborations. We are receiving strong support from the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, headed by Professor Steve Heys. The dental school is now seen as a great opportunity for multi-disciplinary research and for people to diversify their research portfolios and go beyond their traditional niche. Wonderful opportunities have emerged from the people wanting to collaborate with us.

“In terms of grant funding, we are currently sitting on grant income of more than half a million, which for the size of team here is really good. We have published more than 10 papers in respected journals in 2016 and another 10 abstracts at conferences.

“So, in terms of the output, we are performing very well. It’s just a case of keeping up that momentum now.”


Dental Research at Aberdeen: A snapshot

Theme 1 – Head and neck cancer

Areas of focus:

  • The epidemiology of oral cancer
  • Head and neck cancer immunology
  • Digital pathology for the classification and grading of oral lesions.

Theme lead – Dr Rasha Abu Eid.

Theme 2 – Microbial diseases

Areas of focus:

  • Oral Candidosis
  • HIV-1
  • Dental caries
  • Periodontal disease
  • Oral mucosal inflammatory disease
  • Antimicrobial resistance.

Theme lead – Dr Karolin Hijazi.

Theme 3 – Population oral health

Areas of focus:

  • Oral health in the elderly – Dr Ekta Gupta.
  • Periodontal disease and systemic health – Dr George Cherukara.

Theme 4 – Pedagogic innovation in dentistry

Areas of focus:

  • Use of e-learning tools for enhancing effectiveness in clinical skills teaching – Dr Rosa Moreno-Lopez.
  • Effect of stress on student performance in dental programmes – Professor Jaya Jayasinghe.
  • Behavioural sciences in clinical skills – Dr George Cherukara.
  • Development of innovative admission strategies predictive of educational attainment – Professor Richard Ibbetson.

More info

For more information on these projects and all the research at Aberdeen, visit www.abdn.ac.uk

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