Class of 2020: Trailblazing students are first to graduate from School of Dentistry Ph.D. program

Erin Mooney and Tanya Puccio will continue tackling challenges in infection and microbiology as scientists.

Three people in cap and gown wearing masks. A V C U School of Dentistry backdrop sits behind them.
Graduating student Erin Mooney (center) celebrates at VCU School of Dentistry's hooding ceremony on Friday with Zhao Lin, Ph.D., (left) an associate professor of periodontics, and Dean David Sarrett, D.M.D., (right) dean of the School of Dentistry. (Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

As students across Virginia Commonwealth University celebrated their graduation, two among them also celebrated breaking new ground. On Saturday, Erin Mooney and Tanya Puccio became the first students to earn their Ph.D. degrees from the VCU School of Dentistry.

“These candidates are the first students to graduate from the oral health research Ph.D. program and the first students to graduate with a Ph.D. from the School of Dentistry,” David Sarrett, D.M.D., dean of VCU School of Dentistry and associate vice president for health sciences at VCU, said at the school’s hooding ceremony on Friday. “These students have fulfilled all requirements and are recommended by our faculty.”

Mooney and Puccio were among the first to take a chance on the new program, based at the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research. Enrolling in the Ph.D. in oral health research program allowed them to further their research pursuits, fulfill their professional goals and even become close friends, they said.

“I was very lucky to have both Tanya and Apurva [Tadimari Prabhakar, who is set to graduate in May] in my cohort,” Mooney said. “We hung out a ton outside of school. … I think that’s one of the benefits of having such a small program; we kind of were forced to be together, and it ended up being for the best.”

A native of Moorpark, California, Puccio arrived at VCU first, after graduating from Virginia Wesleyan University with degrees in biology and Hispanic studies and a minor in chemistry. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in science but wasn’t sure exactly what that would look like. An interest in exploring potential research avenues was part of what drew her to VCU in 2015 and, later, would be an important factor in her education in the Ph.D. program.

Puccio joined the Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal, a program at the VCU School of Medicine for students interested in doctoral training in the sciences. When the Ph.D. in oral health research program opened to applicants, the principal investigator for her research project, Todd Kitten, Ph.D., a professor and director of biomedical sciences at the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, encouraged Puccio to apply.

When she joined the new program in 2016, she met Mooney, who is from State College, Pennsylvania, and had earned her B.S. in biology at Dickinson College. Mooney had always had an interest in becoming a dentist but had grown to enjoy research while working in a lab at the University of Pennsylvania. The VCU program offered the best of both worlds, giving Mooney a chance to contribute to the field of oral health research before even starting dental school.

“That’s what our graduate programs at the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research are designed to do: Develop scientists’ skills so they are prepared to be leaders who are experts in their specific area of research, whether it be microbiology, bioengineering or cancer. They can use their skills to further biomedical research and patient treatments, including oral health,” said Oonagh Loughran, Ph.D., the VCU School of Dentistry’s director of postgraduate research programs, including the Ph.D. program and a new concentration in oral biology for the M.S. in microbiology and immunology program, which will enroll its first students in fall 2021.

Two students in cap and gown wearing masks.
Erin Mooney, left, and Tanya Puccio earned their hoods as graduating doctoral students. At Saturday's commencement, the pair became the first students to earn a Ph.D. from VCU School of Dentistry. (Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

Research focus

Upon joining the program, Puccio and Mooney took courses in molecular and cell biology, biochemistry and pathogenesis but also had the opportunity to specialize in bioengineering, cancer or infection and immunology research.

“We got to learn a lot about a little bit of everything so, even though I’m primarily a microbiologist, I know a little bit about cancer and engineering because of those courses,” Puccio said. “The program just has a lot of flexibility. There are core classes that we had to take, but I also got to take a class in the medicinal chemistry department that focused on protein modeling, which was a really fun and informative course that helped with one of my projects.”

In the lab, Puccio continued her focus on microbiology, a topic she had studied as an undergraduate student. In Kitten’s lab, the team studies Streptococcus sanguinis, a type of bacteria that can have positive impacts on one part of the body and potentially deadly effects in another. When found in the mouth, the bacterium is what Puccio calls a “good” bacterium because it naturally competes with another type of bacteria that causes cavities. However, the same bacterium can have negative effects if it gets into the bloodstream of patients with a damaged heart valve. If it colonizes the damaged heart valve, it can lead to an embolism or a stroke, Puccio said.

Mooney joined a lab focused on the role of an enzyme called A20 in periodontitis, a gum disease that, left untreated, can lead to the loss of teeth or other serious complications. More than 40% of American adults over age 30 have some form of periodontal disease, according to a report from the American Dental Association in 2018, and in severe cases, a person’s main option is typically surgery. Mooney and the team have recently been investigating a supplement called quercetin to see if it might be effective as an option to help patients maintain the correct level of A20 and keep their gums healthy.

When her research project’s adviser left for a position at the University of Pennsylvania, Mooney said Loughran, the program director at VCU, was flexible, allowing Mooney to go to Pennsylvania to continue work in her adviser’s lab and complete the program from there. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mooney kept in touch remotely on a frequent basis with VCU faculty and with Loughran, whose leadership made a difference in helping her and other students in the program succeed, Mooney said.

“Dr. Loughran always followed [along with] me in my journey there, making sure I could graduate when I did, because it was challenging in itself to be away from Richmond for so long,” Mooney said. “Every month, she was like, ‘This is what you need to get done to be finished.’ It’s another reason why I loved VCU and my experience so much because she made something that was incredibly difficult a lot easier for me.”

While Mooney is grateful for many experiences she had at VCU, she said Loughran’s leadership made a difference in helping her and other students in the program succeed.

Beyond the classroom and lab

After joining the Women in Science student organization as a first-year student, Puccio served on the executive board and later as its president for two years. The group held networking events for faculty and students and career days for local Girl Scouts. Puccio even spearheaded the organization’s first — now annual — shadow day for undergraduate students at VCU to get a taste of what graduate school might be like.

“We didn't have any graduate students when I was there at [Virginia] Wesleyan, and it would’ve been so nice to just figure out, ‘What do grad students do? What are their classes like?’” Puccio said. “So that's why I said, ‘We have the undergrad campus right down the road. Why not invite them over to see what it's like?’”

Mooney also had an opportunity to connect with undergraduates through teaching, something in which she had not realized she had an interest. During her earlier presentation, she recalls being so nervous she read directly off her notes. Over the years, her interest grew, and Loughran put Mooney and her fellow students in touch with the summer undergraduate Near Peers Seminar Series.

“Dr. Loughran gave us all the opportunity to speak or teach at one of the sessions,” Mooney said. “I did that, and I really fell in love with doing that, especially myself, I’m an underrepresented student. Having the opportunity — especially to teach kids that might not be involved [in] or want to pursue STEM-type research — to really encourage them that anyone can do this, it’s really exciting.”

Mooney wasn’t the only one who traveled for her training. As part of the program’s qualifying exams, Puccio and other students created mock grant proposals to prepare them for grant funding submissions in the future. Based on a training grant proposal for the program, Puccio submitted an application for a National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research fellowship. In her second round of reviews, Puccio got a perfect score, a rare feat for a grant proposal, Loughran said.

“Essentially, they had no other feedback because I had proposed everything they could feasibly think of for a training grant,” Puccio said.

Earning the fellowship gave her the opportunity to travel to a research collaborator’s lab at Purdue University in Indiana to gain further training that would help her complete her thesis research and further her professional growth, which will continue for now at VCU.

Mooney and Puccio will be pursuing postdoctoral fellowships at VCU. Puccio will remain in her current lab with Kitten for her postdoc while she finishes some publications and later will seek positions in the biomedical research industry. Mooney will join a lab in the School of Medicine focused on immunology, a field that crosses over into what she has studied at the Philips Institute, and plans to continue her pursuit of becoming a dentist once the fellowship is complete.

But first, they were among the more than 2,200 students who graduated from VCU this semester, representing the first doctoral candidates in history to earn a Ph.D. from the VCU School of Dentistry.

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