Alumna Named UConn Dental Dean
Graduate Discovered Research Passion While Student
By Catherine Duncan
When Sharon M. Gordon was a first-year dental student at UT Health San Antonio, she appeared in the office doorway of Spencer W. Redding, D.D.S., M.Ed., associate dean for advanced education and hospital affairs.
“Sharon wanted to do research during the summer and asked me if I had anything for her to do,” remembers Dr. Redding, emeritus chair of comprehensive dentistry. “This was the late 80s, and we were studying infections of the herpes simplex virus in patients receiving transplants. Dr. (Michael) Montgomery and I were looking at infection that developed in the mouth when patients had transplants.”
She studied the first 30 heart transplant patients’ records at the now-named University Hospital and determined the percentage that developed the infection after surgery, he said. “That was Sharon’s introduction to research.”
Gordon, D.D.S. Class of 1991, M.P.H., Ph.D., said the ability to engage in research as a dental student was instrumental to her career path. Dr. Gordon recalls that John Rugh, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Orthodontics and director of research at that time, had a National Institutes of Health grant to fund the school’s summer research program. After working with Dr. Redding, Dr. Rugh gave her the opportunity to do research in the Facial Pain Clinic with Drs. Montgomery and Joseph E. Van Sickles, D.D.S., oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
“It was so exciting to be able to do research as a dental student. We had the summer available to do research. The topics I studied as a dental student are the same as those I am studying today: chronic facial pain and oral complications of immunosuppression,” she added.
Dr. Gordon said she continues to study these same topics because they are clinical problems that persist today. “We still don’t have good solutions. We have the conundrum of how to help patients suffering from these conditions. By looking at the causes of these conditions, we are making headway toward helping patients manage them.”
She remained with the School of Dentistry for her general practice residency training, which took place at University Hospital and the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital. During her residency, she continued performing research with Dr. Montgomery, who served as director of the residency program at that time.
Dr. Montgomery said Dr. Gordon was a very solid resident and was fun, outgoing and very confident. During her residency, she contributed to two abstracts and one paper.
Dr. Gordon describes Dr. Redding, who retired as chair of comprehensive dentistry in 2016, and Dr. Montgomery, who has been in private practice since 1995, as her mentors. “Working with them opened my eyes about a career in research.
“By performing research during dental school and my residency, I was able to land a fellowship at the NIH’s National Institute of Dental Research. I’ve been doing research ever since,” she said. Dr. Gordon remained at the NIH for 13 years and earned her Ph.D. in clinical investigation and M.P.H. in epidemiology, both from Johns Hopkins University, while there. After earning these degrees, she decided a career in academics was her future.
Dr. Gordon’s first position at a dental school was at the University of Maryland, where she became a tenured professor after performing research and teaching for more than 10 years. Next she had the opportunity to grow a new dental school at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. She served there as associate dean for innovation and discovery and professor and chair of foundational sciences. “This was a great opportunity for me. I was able to help a new school develop curriculum and research from scratch,” she said.
In August 2018, Dr. Gordon assumed a new role as the first woman dean at the University of Connecticut’s School of Dental Medicine. “At UConn, I want to do what the dental school in San Antonio has been doing so well for many years: blending education with research. Research provides the evidence base needed to improve patient care. They go hand in hand. That is the philosophy that San Antonio’s dental school ingrained in me.”
Dr. Rugh said he is not surprised by Dr. Gordon’s current position as the dental dean at UConn. “She was a star in her class at the School of Dentistry. She published five abstracts and two papers while she was here. As a student, she presented at national and international conferences,” he said. “From the beginning, she had a real vision to make the world better. She was eager to get involved in research. We knew she was going to go someplace, and she did.”
While Dr. Rugh praises Dr. Gordon and her career, she is complimentary of the school’s Center for Oral Health Care & Research. “It looks amazing. I congratulate (former dean) Dr. (Bill) Dodge and all who contributed to it. I visited the new clinic and was able to view the room I named after my husband,” Dr. Gordon said. With Ernest “Ernie” B. Luce, D.D.S., clinical associate professor of comprehensive dentistry, she co-funded the Raymond A. Dionne, D.D.S., Ph.D., Clinical Simulation Laboratory.
“I appreciate the strong research tradition that is continuing in the new clinical practice facility,” she added.
Dr. Redding said her significant contribution to the new clinical facility honors her husband who has devoted his career to pain and anxiety research. In the Dionne lab, Dr. Luce teaches residents how to manage medical emergencies for dental patients.
“Sharon was always a highly motivated student who was interested in research. While the opportunities here helped her pursue a career in research, she had the self-motivation to establish a well-respected career in dental research and education,”
Dr. Redding added.