Summer Research Scholars

Five members of the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine’s Class of 2025 began their stints in June as 2021 Summer Research Scholars—and look forward to making discoveries that could help their future patients.

Sara Feggeler, Kyu Lee, Ijeoma Okons, Kaisi Peele and Jackson Russell will conduct research alongside faculty mentors until August, when they will begin dental school. The students will present posters on their research projects at the Brody School of Medicine Research Day on Aug. 2 and at the School of Dental Medicine’s Celebration of Research and Scholarship on Feb. 9, 2022.

Feggeler, of Pinehurst, earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC–Greensboro in 2019 and will be mentored by Dr. Michelle Oyen, associate professor of engineering; Dr. Gabriel Abuna, postdoctoral scholar and Dr. Saulo Geraldeli, associate professor and division director of dental biomaterials. Feggeler’s project is titled, “Development of Artificial Dentin for Dental Educational Purposes.”

“I feel like research is the best way to push yourself to be a critical thinker,” Feggeler said. “I am excited to work on something that is hopefully going to change the way students learn about dentistry. This experience is like a precursor to the rest of my life and is only making me more excited to begin my studies.”

Feggeler said the summer research program is a great way to kick off dental school and the beginning of a lifelong learning experience.

The School of Dental Medicine’s 2021 Summer Research Scholars are (from left to right) Ijeoma Okons, Kyu Lee, Kaisi Peele, Jackson Russell and Sara Feggeler.

“I am looking forward to creating relationships with my fellow classmates and my patients over the next four years,” she said. “I was drawn to ECU because of its involvement with the underserved population. I have always been involved in community service and look forward to helping people through my chosen profession.

Lee, of Fayetteville, earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC–Chapel Hill in 2020 and will be mentored by Dr. Ramiro Murata, assistant professor, on a project titled, “Vital Candida Interactions,” through which they will investigate how Candida Albicans interferes with HIV pathogenesis.

“I conducted research as an undergraduate at UNC, and it gave me the chance to see how every person in the lab contributes to the collective knowledge of mankind,” Lee said. “I hope that the research I do at the School of Dental Medicine contributes to the wider literature on Candida interactions with HIV and can maybe one day lead to clinical significance. As a future dentist, I want to stay up to date on the latest research and evidence-based techniques to ensure the best outcomes for my patients.”

Lee said embarking on the dental school journey is the start of a dream years in the making.

“I am looking forward to finally taking my first steps towards becoming a dentist. I look forward to meeting my classmates and learning about dentistry in general,” he said. “I hope to learn about research at the predoctoral level, how research is conducted at the School of Dental Medicine and see if research is right for me continuing into the school year.”

Okons, of Fayetteville, earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC–Greensboro and will be mentored by Dr. Maged Abdelaal, Dr. Mahmoud Serag and Dr. Moeman Sheba, clinical assistant professors ofprosthodontics in the Department of General Dentistry. Okons’ project is titled, “Fractographic Analysis of Different Commercially Available Zirconia Blocks for CAD/CAM Technology.”

“As this is my first experience in a research lab, I hope to expand on my ability to quickly pick up new techniques and concepts, and I hope this will translates to when we start dental school because we are required to learn large volumes of information quickly,” Okons said. “I am also excited to see my approach when it comes to problem-solving in the research lab and hope this will translate to when I start school as well.”

Okons participated in Impressions Day, an event that showcases dental school to potential students. After that introduction to the School of Dental Medicine, she said she could picture herself as a part of it all.

“What really sold me on the school is the dedication and commitment the ECU School of Dental Medicine has to serving the underserved community,” she said. “This confirmed that this was the school I wanted to go to because it matches my goal of decreasing disparities in oral health; being around others sharing the same goal is encouraging.”

Peele, of Ahoskie, earned a bachelor’s degree from N.C. A&T University in 2020 and will be mentored by Dr. Azeez Aileru, professor of neuroscience and division director of basic sciences in the Department of Foundational Sciences. Peele’s project is titled, “Angiotensin Protein Expression in Transgenic Strain of Hypertension.”

“This summer, I hope to learn how to do in-depth research and be able to directly relate my project to dentistry,” Peele said. “I hope to learn more about how the dental school makes the connection between research and the practice of dentistry, and I hope to learn more about myself and what I am capable of as a student and a researcher.”

Peele said having one of the school’s community service learning centers in her hometown made her want to make a difference on a higher level.

“Coming from a community that is directly impacted by having a lack of access to care, I want to be able to give back in a bigger way,” she said. “The mission of the School of Dental Medicine aligns with my vision. The community service learning centers and the overall atmosphere of the school were two major factors that solidified that this is where I would become the best dentist I can be.”

Russell, of Rocky Mount, earned a bachelor’s degree from N.C. State University in 2017 and will be mentored by Dr. Luis Sensi, assistant professor and division director of operative dentistry, and Dr. Saulo Geraldeli, associate professor and division director of dental biomaterials in the Department of General Dentistry. Russell’s project is titled, “Light-Curing Effects on the Polishability, Gloss Retention and Repolishability of Composite Resins.”

“I hope to become more familiar the research process and how it integrates with the clinical setting,” Russell said. “I am interested in biomaterials and I believe my research project will give me the opportunity to learn more about the ones utilized in the dentistry field.”

Russell said the School of Dental Medicine drew him because of its commitment to service and their student preparation for the field. He looks forward to working with classmates and faculty and continuing to reap the benefits of research.

“I am new to research, but I believe participating in different facets of dentistry will make me a better dentist,” he said. “I also enjoy the sense of discovery that research affords. I hope to use the critical thinking skills and cutting-edge technology found in research as a practicing dentist.”

Matthew Pendleton and Tyler Reason, two of the 2020 Summer Research Scholars, earned Block Travel Grants from the American Association of Dental Research. They will present their accepted abstracts and posters at the association’s virtual meeting in July.

Spaine Stephens, University Communications