Kevin Matthew Byrd is the Anthony R. Volpe Research Scholar and Manager of Oral & Craniofacial Research at ADA Science & Research Institute (ADASRI). He is a clinician-scientist who completed his D.D.S. at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 2013 and his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018.
Byrd’s research has focused on understanding oral stem cell heterogeneity and how their regulation contributes to wound healing and head and neck cancers. Recently, he has expanded his scope through active collaborations across the world to apply advanced technologies to catalog the oral and oropharyngeal tissues at single cell resolution, leading to his appointment as the Coordinator for the new Human Cell Atlas Oral & Craniofacial Biological Network.
His research has been supported by industry, foundations and the NIH. At ADASRI, he leads the Lab of Oral & Craniofacial Innovation (LOCI) which explores: 1) oral epithelial stem cell regulation and heterogeneity, 2) the role of the oral cavity in systemic disease and 3) contributing to the human cell atlas for categorizing the unique and undiscovered cell types in oral and craniofacial tissues.
1. How did you first learn about AADR and what motivated you to join?
I went to a small, liberal arts university in Indiana with limited research opportunities. My first true exposure to research was not until my third year of dental school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, when I decided to email Dr. Theodora Danciu about whether she had any current research opportunities for an enthusiastic novice. Her style of teaching and incorporation of recent scientific literature was compelling and I was fortunate enough to meet her after class one day. We quickly began a “deep dive” on various mechanisms of cancer spread, and only after about six weeks of working together she encouraged me to submit an AADR Student Research Fellowship proposal. Being so new to the field, I had no idea what AADR even was so I researched the organization, became a member and have been one ever since.
2. What do you find to be the most valuable benefit of an AADR membership?
One of the most important benefits of an AADR membership is networking with other leaders in your field — either at the meeting or via email, phone and zoom in the interim. I have found such a deep commitment to science and discovery among these colleagues and a refreshing openness to collaborate and share invaluable knowledge. In ways that are hard to quantify, this consistent culture of AADR has invariably advanced oral and craniofacial health research initiatives that have directly improved public health.
3. Tell us about your recent research focus. How has being involved with AADR impacted your research?
I have had an interest in diseases of the oral cavity throughout my career as a clinician-scientist. My career goal continues to be focused on oral and craniofacial diseases, specifically to discover the mechanisms of epithelial regulation and working with patients to apply these findings in a clinical setting. This will be the focus of the new lab I am creating at the ADA Science & Research Institute called LOCI: Lab of Oral & Craniofacial Innovation and will be supported by my new roles as the Anthony R. Volpe Research Scholar and Manager of Oral & Craniofacial Research.
During my early training at the Universities of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I trained as a periodontist and let that clinical experience inform the questions I asked about, including how stem cells contribute to tissue renewal and how that renewal is interrupted in a variety of contexts, including oral-systemic interactions, inflammation/immune dysfunction and cancer. Some of these discoveries include how the oral epithelia renew themselves, including the discovery of delaminations in homeostasis and identifying the molecular controls of oriented cell divisions in oral epithelia development. It was during this project that I realized the heterogeneity of the various oral niches, including the gingiva, which defined some of our recent work using single cell RNA sequencing of human oral mucosa to give us the roadmap to discover broad oral epithelial cell infection in COVID-19.
Each of these projects was presented at AADR/IADR. During my Ph.D. I was fortunate enough to be awarded First Prize in the AADR Johnson & Johnson Hatton Competition, Senior Category in 2015 and during my postdoc I was awarded, Second Place in the IADR Unilever Hatton Competition, Senior Basic Science Category in 2018. I have always found AADR to be open to my ideas, constructive in its feedback and supportive of my goals.
4. You were very involved with the AADR National Student Research Group (NSRG). Why was being active in the NSRG important? How has your involvement with the NSRG impacted your career?
Early on, the membership was valuable as an organized way to guide me to find similar researchers, particularly dental students, who were trying to balance both intensive clinical training and high-quality research projects. In the age of social media and the possibility for intentional connection, there is now an informal “early career researchers” group that consists of IADR/AADR members navigating these career transitions. This group has never crystallized its intentions, but I would say that we collectively aim to selflessly support each other to discover, to lead, and hopefully to inspire the next generation of researchers. During this time of social distancing and isolation catalyzed by COVID-19, I have regularly been in contact with at least 20 current AADR members that I met or connected with during those early years of training. I count these individuals as some of my closest friends and my most supportive colleagues.
5. You are a member of the AADR Science Information Committee (AADR SIC) — thank you for volunteering! Why did you decide to join the AADR Science Information Committee?
Since 2015, I have been acutely aware of the challenges of communicating science. I consider it is a viral service to both interpret, guide and communicate science to other health care leaders and to the public-at-large. Much to the annoyance of my social circle, I have been passionately committed to sharing science for the purposes of distillation and education. I have also supported science reporting training initiatives for journalists and championed nuanced and thoughtful scientific reporters like Ed Yong at The Atlantic whenever possible. The chance to volunteer for the AADR SIC was an attractive opportunity given my obvious interests.
6. What do you view as the best way for other members to become more involved in AADR and get the most out of the membership?
I think there needs to be a bigger push to engage researchers across disciplines and universities outside of traditional dentistry. This also applies to industry. The most success I have had so far in my career has been when diverse approaches have been combined to address a complex problem. There are a number of NIH/NIDCR-funded researchers not actively engaged in AADR. I and others have recently engaged these individuals for collaboration and some of that work and those colleagues will be presenting at future AADR meetings as part of special symposia related to COVID-19 or applying single cell ‘omics approaches to oral and craniofacial diseases. An interdisciplinary approach will benefit new members, established members and ultimately, the public once new avenues are initiated and findings can be applied.
7. What’s a message you want to give to future dental researchers?
Read broadly, be supportive. And above all, stay curious.