Class of 2020 Member Publishes Research Paper in Dental Journal | St. Lawrence University

Class of 2020 Member Publishes Research Paper in Dental Journal

When future dentist Tabitha Barr ’20 set out on her study abroad adventure in London, she never imagined it would lead to conducting research alongside one of the United Kingdom’s most renowned scholars and having those findings published.

Her paper, “The Past and Future of the Seaweed-Derived Impression Material Alginate,” was published in the January 2020 edition of the Dental Historian, a peer-reviewed journal based out of the British Dental Association. Tabitha’s research focused on the history of flexible impression materials dating back to the Romans up through the present day where alginates, which are harvested from seaweeds, are commonly used by dentists, as well as what needs to be taken into consideration for its use in the future.

“People don’t realize how amazing seaweed is,” she explains. “It’s a whole other biological world. Many people know that it is used commercially as a thickener in shampoos and ice cream, but it has so many more applications. My research focused on the importance of alginates in the dental field and how their portability makes it useful in combat medicine and in places that don’t have a lot of funding for dental health. Because of this, we should be concerned about certain seaweed populations and how global warming is affecting them.”

Tabitha, who majored in both biology and studio art and minored in public health at St. Lawrence, has wanted to be a dentist for nearly a decade. “Dentistry is such an amazing field in so many aspects, especially between being able to improve people’s lives so immensely while still being an almost artisanal, physical art,” she says.

After shadowing a few dentists in high school and completing a dental school preparation course at the University of Minnesota, she explored universities known for their dental programs. Ultimately, she decided she wanted an undergraduate experience with diverse opportunities so she could pursue her many interests.

“I also wanted to study psychology and explore art, which I didn’t get to do until my senior year of high school, and study abroad,” she explains. “St. Lawrence had everything I wanted: great academics, big trees, unlimited clay, a beautiful science building, and the Student Center was exactly what I was hoping for.” 

As she embarked on her journey to pursue dentistry as a career, Tabitha met other students who had the same goal.

“What I liked about St. Lawrence’s student community is that students are supportive instead of competitive,” she says. That collaborative spirit led her and others to co-found St. Lawrence’s Pre-Dental Society to bring like-minded students together to learn from one another as well as prepare for dental school.

When it came time to study off campus during the Spring 2019 semester, Tabitha originally planned to study in Italy. Instead, fate took her to St. Lawrence’s London Program, which includes 10 weeks of coursework and a one-month work placement so students can expand their understanding through meaningful experiential opportunities. Tabitha was seeking work internships when she found the British Dental Museum in London, located within the British Dental Association. While she found that the museum was more of a cataloged depository and less of somewhere in need of an eager student’s handiwork, her visit led to meeting Nairn HF Wilson, a renowned dental scholar and the previous president of the British Dental Association whose wife, Margaret, was the curator for the museum. Both serve as editors for the Dental Historian.

“I told him I was willing to help with whatever I could, as well as about the research I was going to be doing that summer at St. Lawrence, my previous shadowing and other dental related experiences, as well as plans to apply to dental school,” Tabitha explains. “He said he had a couple of ideas for articles that he hadn’t gotten around to yet and let me choose one that interested me.”

One of the topics was how the dental field uses seaweed, which Tabitha jumped at the chance to take on.

“At St. Lawrence, I had already taken an Ethnobotany course that sparked my intended research topic for the upcoming summer about how plants are used in oral health, and I had also taken the Blue Planet biology course where I learned about seaweed populations,” she says. “I was able to use all of this background in my research for the paper.”

Tabitha didn’t know how serendipitous her research choice was at the time, but that decision ended up taking her on an adventure throughout the United Kingdom. St. Lawrence’s London Program faculty and staff helped Tabitha secure funding to travel to Oban, Scotland, to meet Duncan Smallman, a marine biologist, who was able to take her out to Slate Islands to see the exact seaweed she was studying for the research article.

Tabitha returned to campus in the summer of 2019 as a University Fellow thanks to funding from both the Katy MacKay University Fellows Endowed Fund and Daniel F. '65 and Ann F. Sullivan Endowment for Student/Faculty Research. Her project, “An Evaluation of the Antibacterial Effects of Some Herbs Traditionally Used for Dental Hygiene and Ailments,” which she worked on with her faculty mentor, Associate Professor of Biology Aswini Pai, as well as Associate Professor of Biology Lorraine Olendzenski and Laboratory Manager Jaclyn teRiele. She spent the summer months exploring the connection between oral health and plants, and grew to better understand cultural components of dental treatments that she otherwise would not have known about.

Her experiences at St. Lawrence only solidified her career goals. She plans to pursue ceramics as part of a special student program at North Dakota State University before applying to dental school, and post-graduation she will work in pediatric dentistry as a sterilization lab technician as well as for Salmon Falls Stoneware as a potter. 

“The research paper for the Dental Historian has been a lesson that many opportunities are there if you look for them,” she says. “The willingness of those around me to help me succeed in my academic and career goals provided me with these amazing experiences. And St. Lawrence staff and faculty have acted not only as advisors but also cheerleaders along the way. There is no way that I would have been able to survive freshman year, let alone study abroad and complete a double major, do dental research, and be published as an undergraduate in a dental-related journal without their kind-hearted and generous support.”