Azeez Butali is a professor at the College of Dentistry, University of Iowa, Iowa City. He graduated as a dentist from the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Nigeria, in 2000 and obtained his Ph.D. in genetics epidemiology in 2010 before proceeding for his post-doctoral training in craniofacial genetics at the University of Iowa. In 2016, he obtained a Certificate in Genetics and Genomics at Stanford University, CA. He currently serves as PI of the Butali Laboratory; Director, African Craniofacial Anomalies Network; Director, College of Dentistry Biorepository, University of Iowa; and Director, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for Topics in Human Genetics. Butali’s lab discovered CTNNA2 and SULT2A as cleft palate candidate genes. He is a reviewer for 25 international peer-reviewed journals, the NIH, and several research funding bodies around the world. Butali is funded by the NIH and private foundations. He has mentored over 20 students and several young faculty worldwide and is currently a 2021-22 AADOCR MIND the Future mentor.
1. How did you first learn about the AADOCR and what motivated you to join?
I first learned about AADOCR, then AADR, from my mentor, Dr. Jeff Murray, when I was a postdoc in his lab. Even before then I had heard about the IADR as a trainee back in my country, Nigeria. I was first a student member when I joined Jeff Murray in 2010. I wanted to be part of the dental research community. I wanted a platform to interact and network, and also to share my science. At the time, I was beginning to transition from a fellowship into independence. I needed to have a home where I could interact with people that do the same thing as I do.
2. Can you describe your research? How do you hope your work will impact others?
I'm a dentist that went into genetics through a Ph.D. program in genetic epidemiology, and I completed a fellowship in craniofacial genetics. The focus of my research has been to identify the genetics and the genomic causes of cleft lip and palate in the African population, with the hope of translating the knowledge gained to other populations.
This research impacts scientists, families, and children around the world who are born with cleft lip and palate. If we can identify the causes, that means another child will not be born with cleft palate. By knowing the causes, we can then develop and design strategies that will help either prevent or reduce the risks.
Right now I'm in the discovery phase of the research, which is to identify the causes. Before you can translate science, it's important to discover—discovery is the foundation of translation. Cleft palate comes with a huge psychosocial burden for individuals and families. By understanding the causes, we can then work on translation, and then prevention, and also modify the risk to reduce those outcomes. At the end of the day, the goal is for those that are born with cleft palate to have the best quality of life, and to be able to prevent or lessen the harmful effects of cleft lip and palate.
3. Can you describe your experience being a researcher from an underrepresented group in science?
Oh, that's a big one. I think my story is one that is a double-edged sword in that I have my area of research and I have my passion to improve health for those in the African continent. I have the privilege of being the first person to forge this research on the African continent, but it comes with its own merits and responsibilities. Being a minority in the U.S., I would love to have several people from my background. So the task of pioneering this research and also trying to build capacity of underrepresented minorities in research became a responsibility that I took on early on in my career. It has been a deliberate and intentional process to train the next generation of underrepresented minorities in this area of research. I'm hoping that they will go forward and do the same.
I've been fortunate. I've been fortunate in the sense that I have been able to train others to do this kind of research. And some of them have gone to become independent faculty themselves. Currently, I have four Ph.D. students in my lab and I have several underrepresented minority students that come through the lab as undergrads and pre-dental students. I even have people coming to my lab from Puerto Rico every summer. So my lab is now like a mecca for underrepresented minority individuals who want to go into craniofacial research and genetics.
I enjoy it, I've fulfilled that one responsibility I decided to take. When I begin to get students it can be overwhelming, but we found a way to accommodate as many as we can. Some of them just come for a few months or less, some are with me for several years as Ph.D. students, and some continue on as postdocs.
It’s been a rewarding experience, but it's not easy. I'm hoping to have many future researchers with similar interests and goals, both research goals and diversity and inclusion goals, in the next few years so that I can say: I don't have a space in my lab, but you I know a lab where you can go.
4. You are a mentor for the 2021-22 class of the AADOCR Mentoring an Inclusive Network for a Diverse Workforce of the Future (AADOCR MIND the Future). Thank you for volunteering your time! What motived you to be a mentor for this program?
I am a beneficiary of great mentorship myself. Peter Mossey and Jeff Murray were wonderful mentors, and I still have relationships with them today. So for me, it was the beauty of the responsibility to pay it forward.
Apart from looking out for underrepresented minorities, my lab has also been open to students from different backgrounds. When the opportunity came to put myself forward to be an AADOCR Mind the Future mentor, I didn't hesitate because for me, it was the payback time. I have benefited and I'm still benefiting, and I still have mentors myself. So it's not as if I'm at the top, I still have mentors too. So doing this for me is like payback. Informally, I was already doing this, but the AADOCR MIND the Future is a formalized process and I'm glad I was able to volunteer my time.
5. Based on your experience, how would you encourage AADOCR members to help increase the diversity of the research workforce?
I think if you consider that diversity helps to enrich your thinking, it's a huge advantage. I've seen labs with people from different backgrounds, and those people enhance the conversation. It also helps significantly if you're doing human subjects research, because the participants are not going to be selected for one race or one creed. You want your research theme to be a reflection of society, but also your lab. Having a mixed background in terms of the personnel benefits the research, my career, and the career of the students. I learn so much from everyone in diverse environments.
6. What role do you think professional associations can play in supporting its members who are members of underrepresented minority/ethnic groups?
I think professional associations can play several roles, including travel fellowships, forums, and leadership opportunities. There is often limited funding in terms of attending meetings, so travel fellowships allow more individuals to attend and be a part of the association. It would be great to create a forum where you could ask a scientist or participant from underrepresented minority groups to talk about their research and how it impacts lives and how it has impacted them.
I think underrepresented minorities should also be part of the leadership such as different sub-committees and leadership roles and professional bodies must be intentional in their recruiting. I'm a member of the nominating committee of the American Society for Human Genetics. And by being a member of that committee, I've learned so much that was not visible to me as an ordinary member. I’d encourage underrepresented minorities to become a member of a committee—you see how the association works at the lowest keel, and how things are done, and from there you will get more involved.