Clinician-scientist finds a balance between career and family

Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D.

As a clinician-scientist, Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., Ph.D., teaches at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, conducts research in the laboratory she manages in the school’s Department of Periodontics and the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, and sees patients at VCU dental clinics.

“Balancing is so important,” the 47-year-old dentist said.

Sahingur has balanced a career in academia with raising two sons and accommodating her husband’s professional advancements along with her own. She was 40 weeks pregnant when she defended her doctoral dissertation at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Six days later, she delivered her second child. For more than three years prior, Sahingur worked on her thesis and completed a clinical residency program in periodontics in New York while raising her older son as her husband, Emre, worked in Richmond. After graduating, she interviewed for a faculty position at VCU, but with an infant and young child, she and Emre decided it would be better for the family if she took time off from work.

“We don’t have any family here, so I needed to stay at home,” she said.

In 2007, before her younger son’s third birthday, VCU contacted Sahingur asking if she was ready to join the dental school faculty. “I said yes,” she said. “They were very understanding. They asked, ‘Do you want to start part time?’ And I said, ‘No, I think we are good now.’”

Sahingur was hired to contribute to the school’s research enterprise, with additional responsibilities as a faculty member and clinician also competing for her time. Like many women who take time off from work to care for their family, she felt pressured to excel when she returned to the workforce.

Sinem Esra Sahingur, middle, flanked by VCU School of Dentistry postgraduate students. (Photo courtesy of Sinem Esra Sahingur)
Sinem Esra Sahingur, middle, flanked by VCU School of Dentistry postgraduate students. (Photo courtesy of Sinem Esra Sahingur)

Now a full-time, tenured professor with more than $5 million in funding to her name, Sahingur’s academic and professional achievements distinguish her as an exceptional faculty member. With the help of institutional, federal and philanthropic funding, she has obtained National Institutes of Health awards, contributed to academic journal publications and presented at conferences around the world.

She hopes to inspire other women to pursue their career goals in the same way. “If you need some time off to take care of your family, do it,” she said. “You can always start where you left off. It may not be as easy as if you had started earlier, but if you are determined and focused, you can catch up.”

Predestined for academia

A native of Istanbul, Sahingur’s earliest childhood memories are of her father, a physician-scientist at Istanbul University, coming home with stories about his students, patients and fellow researchers.

“I grew up surrounded by academicians,” she said. “It was part of my life.”

Sahingur’s father died when she was 11, leaving her with a desire to continue his legacy. “I always knew I would pursue a career in research and medicine,” she said.

At VCU, she has focused on clarifying the links between gum disease and systemic health issues. She is especially interested in preventing and curing periodontitis, a disease that results from interactions between pathogens in the gums and the body’s immune response.

Periodontal diseases are chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the structures around the teeth. They generally are categorized as either gingivitis or periodontitis. Gingivitis, the mildest form, presents as inflammation of the gums without bone or tissue loss. It can be prevented by adequate home care and regular dental exams. Periodontitis is the progression of the inflammation into the deeper tooth-supporting tissue. If left untreated, it results in destruction of bone and soft tissue, eventually leading to tooth loss.

“I look at how inflammation progresses through the body and try to identify therapeutic targets to reduce the inflammation,” Sahingur said. Specifically, her research team is attempting to characterize the key regulators of inflammation with the ultimate goal of discovering better therapeutics to treat periodontitis.

Nearly half of all adults in the United States suffer from periodontal disease and almost 10 percent of that group exhibits severe forms of the disease. Chronic oral inflammation can raise the risk for several life-threatening conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, pregnancy complications, arthritis and cancer. Sahingur aims to discover a treatment that could improve the lives of millions.

“As a clinician, I get to experience the benefits of research firsthand, and I would like for my work to have a broad impact on improving overall health,” Sahingur said. “As a clinician-scientist, I am able to focus my research toward projects that will translate to better clinical care.”

Hard work and a little help

In 2013, Sahingur was an inaugural awardee of the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research’s endowment fund. The Wright Center and the VCU Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences created the fund to support meritorious pilot and feasibility research.

That same year, Sahingur was awarded a KL2 scholarship through the Wright Center. Two years later, she was awarded a $1.9 million NIH grant for five years to continue her research, making her the first VCU KL2 scholarship recipient to receive a Research Project Grant.

Sahingur with VCU School of Dentistry postgraduate students. (Photo courtesy of Sinem Esra Sahingur)
Sahingur with VCU School of Dentistry postgraduate students. (Photo courtesy of Sinem Esra Sahingur)

“The KL2 scholarship and endowment fund were tremendously helpful because they gave me the time and money I needed to be involved more with research,” she said. “In addition, being part of the Wright Center enabled me to build lasting relationships with colleagues from different disciplines.”

Paying it forward

Sahingur intends for her research in oral health to improve the lives of patients beyond the dental clinic.

“Research shows that poor oral health does not only lead to tooth loss, but also has a negative impact on different parts of the body and ultimately quality of life,” she said. “As we move to a new era of precision medicine which aims to personalize treatments, it will be important to integrate oral health as part of overall health to generate more effective preventive and treatment options and better serve our patients.”

While developing her research program, Sahingur pursued interdisciplinary collaborations with colleagues whose research related to the systemic health effects of oral health. The collaborations led to peer-reviewed publications that reported on topics ranging from the effects of newly emerged smoking products to the effects of periodontitis on conditions such as cirrhosis, oral cancer and preterm birth.

“Future research success and translation to the clinics will only be possible through interdisciplinary projects,” Sahingur said. “My goal is to build on the studies we have already started and look for more opportunities to bridge the gap between dental and medical professions.”

Sahingur is on track to achieve her goal. In June, she received a second NIH grant of nearly $2 million to further her research.

Sahingur with David Sarrett, dean of the School of Dentistry. (Photo courtesy of University Relations)
Sahingur with David Sarrett, dean of the School of Dentistry. (Photo courtesy of University Relations)

“Dr. Sahingur is a vital member of the School of Dentistry’s research enterprise,” said the school’s dean, David C. Sarrett, D.M.D. “During her time at VCU, she has developed a national and international reputation as a dental researcher and clinician-scientist. We are proud to have her as a member of our faculty.”

Sarrett recognized Sahingur’s achievements in September with the Dean’s Faculty Excellence Award for Research. The award came on the heels of a string of laurels last year, including the VCU Office of Research and Innovation’s Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in April and the university’s Women in Science, Medicine and Dentistry Professional Achievement Award in May.

While her focus has remained on research, Sahingur has devoted much of her time to supporting the next generation of clinicians and scientists by teaching, directing courses and serving as a mentor for faculty and students. For the past three years, she also has been involved in developing the school’s recently launched Ph.D. program in oral health research.

“Although Dr. Sahingur has an abundance of responsibilities as a researcher, professor and periodontist, she never forgets about her mentees,” said Nitika Gupta, a senior biology student who worked in Sahingur’s lab and nominated her for the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award last year.

Gupta plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania School Of Dental Medicine in the fall to pursue a doctorate in dental medicine.

“Dr. Sahingur invested her time in enhancing my education,” Gupta said. “My passion for molecular and cellular biology and biochemistry grew exponentially while working in her lab. I hope to inspire others the way she inspired me.”

A delicate balance

Not long after Sahingur started at VCU, Emre was offered a job in Washington and the family was again separated. For nearly a decade, she lived in Richmond with her two sons while Emre lived in Washington. “He was there during the weekdays and I was here taking care of the children while I worked,” she said. Two years ago, her older son started college and Sahingurmoved with her younger son, who is now 14, to Washington. She commutes two hours each way to work in Richmond.

“As women, we make sacrifices to balance our commitments to our families with our professional aspirations,” she said.

So far, the sacrifices have paid off, Sahingur said.

“I am dedicated to my family and my work,” she said. “Life is full of surprises and often steers us in unexpected directions. The most important thing is not to give up on our ambitions and direct our positive energy to continue chasing the things that fulfill us.”