Octavio Gonzalez, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D. was born in Bogota, Colombia. He graduated as a D.D.S. in 1993 at Pontifical Xaverian University, Bogota, Colombia. After 2 years of practice he joined his Alma-mater as a faculty member in 1997 and combined academia and dental practice for the subsequent 8 years during which he also obtained a Master’s degree in Microbiology at the same University. Motivated for oral health research, Octavio then moved to Lexington in 2005 to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Medicine at University of Kentucky, working with Dr. Jeff Ebersole as his mentor. After completion of the Ph.D. in 2010, he joined the faculty at University of Kentucky-College of Dentistry as an assistant professor, and was recently promoted to Associate Professor. His research has been focused on (i) the role of commensal- and pathogenic bacteria-epithelial cell interactions in oral health and early events of the pathogenesis of periodontal disease, and (ii) the effects of aging on the innate immune responses of the oral mucosa and the oral microbiome. He has also served as reviewer for multiple dental, immunology, and microbiology journals, NIH/NIDCR and AADR and Latin-American scientific committees.
How did you first learn about the AADR and what motivated you to join?
As an international dentist-scientist, I first learned about AADR through its website in 1998, when I was finishing my Masters training in Bogota, Colombia. I was excited about IADR/AADR because I learned it was the biggest association gathering talented scientists from around the world to discuss oral health research. I participated in my first AADR meeting in 2003, where I had my first poster presentation in San Antonio, Texas. I was very grateful to my school in Colombia for supporting me to participate in my first AADR meeting. Later on when I came to the United States, my Ph.D. mentor Jeff Ebersole, who is an AADR Past President, encouraged me to become a permanent and engaged IADR/AADR member.
Can you describe your research? How do you hope your work will impact others?
Our main research interest is focused on the pathogenesis of periodontal disease with particular emphasis on three lines of investigation. First, we are studying the role of host-bacterial interactions in oral health and early events of periodontal disease. For this, we use in vitro and in vivo models to identify specific molecular pathways in oral epithelial cells that can be modulated by “good” oral commensal bacteria to regulate inflammation and maintain homeostasis in oral tissues. We are also trying to identify molecular pathways in oral epithelial cells that are specifically activated by oral pathogens such as P. gingivalis to start disease. The goal with this work is to better understand oral health and early disease events with the hope of preventing periodontal disease before irreversible tissue damage occurs.
The second is to identify the effects of aging on the gingival inflammatory response that could explain the higher risk of periodontal disease in the elderly. For that, we have been collaborating with the University of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Primate Research Center in San Juan, P.R. We are using a non-human primate model to identify the main changes in the gingival immunoinflammatory transcriptome and the oral microbiome that can occur with aging and may lead to aging-associated periodontal disease.
The third is trying to identify new strategies to prevent periodontal disease. That involves collaboration with the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy and College of Medicine. We are trying to design and test clinically modified oligonucleotides for modulating oral epithelial cell inflammatory responses as well as drug analogs, with specific antimicrobial activity against periodontal pathogens. We hope that this work will provide new knowledge and foundations for developing new strategies to prevent periodontal disease. Half of the U.S. adult population has periodontal disease, and that number increases to about 65% in the elderly. These numbers demonstrate that we have not yet been able to successfully prevent this oral disease.
Can you tell a story or give an example of how cross collaboration with other scientific disciplines has been important to your career?
As I mentioned, I have been recently started a collaboration with other disciplines. I believe that this is a critical component of research. Collaborations with biochemistry and pharmacology at the University of Kentucky have been instrumental for generating new ideas to develop, for example, molecular approaches that could potentially be used to modulate oral mucosal inflammatory responses. Their expertise in molecular biology and drug development approaches has been a synergistic combination to move forward these ideas into different levels of potential future clinical applicability. I think new and more efficient preventive measures to control periodontal disease are needed. The scientific community has generated a lot of knowledge about the pathogenesis of periodontitis, which provides interesting targets that we can start thinking about how to modulate more specifically with fewer side effects and more efficiently even before the disease starts. Collaborating with these groups has been very helpful and motivating.
Can you describe your experience being a researcher from an underrepresented group in science?
My experience as a scientist from an underrepresented group has been fantastic from many angles. I genuinely appreciate the ability to work in the United States. The availability of reagents or cutting-edge technology, which we normally cannot access easily in our home countries, is plentiful here. A major factor that has contributed to my positive experience here, as a minority is the identification of talented mentors. All of them have helped me to work in the right direction for a better pathway. Mentors are important for everybody, but for underrepresented minorities, mentors are crucial for growing scientifically and professionally here. I have had constant support from deans, mentors and colleagues including AADR members from some of the IADR Scientific Groups.
Have you had the opportunity to mentor underrepresented minorities or work to increase diversity in science? If yes, can you describe your experience and what agencies/organizations you worked with?
Since I came to the U.S., I have tried to maintain my connection with my alma mater in Colombia, “Pontificia Universidad Javeriana” (Pontifical Xaverian University), and other Colombian universities, such as the “Universidad El Bosque”. I have had the opportunity to share my research with dental and Ph.D. students in Colombia and invite those young talented students interested in science to have a research experience in my lab. In addition, here at the University of Kentucky there is an interesting program called Mentoring Moments. As part of this program, I meet with undergraduate students interested in pursuing a health career or dental students from underrepresented groups or minorities. I normally share with these students my experiences trying to work and grow as a professional and scientist in the oral health field. Many of those students later approach me and we have very interesting dialogues that evolve into new research ideas and opportunities. I truly enjoy and value their genuine motivation to pursue and work on scientific and academic opportunities.
What role do you think professional associations can play in supporting its members who are members of underrepresented minority/ethnic groups?
There are many dental associations. They can play a significant and impactful role in supporting members of underrepresented groups, especially thinking about pursuing scientific careers. There should be a closer relationship between these associations with those dedicated to research like AADR. There is a gap between the clinic and research everywhere with the incorrect belief that both are mutually exclusive. Interactions between [clinical] dental associations and AADR or scientific institutions will be critical to close that gap, and that will foster the opportunity to identify and encourage the next generation of minorities to pursue an academic or scientific career. For example, members of these associations could identify those talented students or young potential scientists to link them with AADR, NSF and NIH and sponsor their participation in short- or long-term research programs that already exist. Likewise, talented people from underrepresented groups working in science could be identified and the opportunity to play an active leadership role at the dental professional associations be given. This would allow minorities to grow as scientists and leaders of the dental profession and at the same time, the professional associations will actively contribute to strength diversity and build a pool of future academicians/scientists undoubtedly needed for leading our dental research and education.