The dental pioneer
Athena Papas is the Erling Johansen Professor of Dental Research, and the Head of the Division of Oral Medicine and Public Health Research at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts. Her groundbreaking research, helped launch countless life-changing medications and mentored generations of colleagues
She is one of the most well-funded specialists in her field. She’s received more than $24 million in grant money since 1978, and led more than 65 clinical trials, including 15 funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dr. Papas earned a BS in Biology at Tufts University, a PhD in Oral Biology at MIT, a DMD at Harvard University and a Harvard NIDCR post-doctoral Fellowship at Children’s Hospital. She excelled at MIT, earning predoctoral fellowships with the National Institute of Dental Research and at Massachusetts General Hospital, and eventually became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in oral biology from the school. After that, Harvard invited her to apply to its dental program. “They had one other woman, an African-American woman,” she said, “and they wanted one more.” Upon graduating from Harvard with her D.M.D. in 1974, she at last joined the Tufts dental school, taking a position as an assistant clinical professor. When Papas earned her D.M.D., in 1974, just 3 percent or so of American dentists were women. That makes Papas something of a pioneer. Yet growing up, she said, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t be dentists.
Her father ran a busy clinic on Marlborough Street in Boston’s Back Bay, where he worked until he died at age 89. Her mother earned her dental degree in Greece, and although she didn’t practice after she and her husband emigrated to the States, all of her best female friends were dentists.
“My parents never treated me any differently from my brother,” Papas has said, referencing George Stevens, who runs a successful cosmetic dental practice out of their father’s old office. “They raised me to expect and to want to work.”
With expertise in the oral healthcare of the elderly, medically compromised and cancer and bone marrow transplant patients, she is a member of more than 15 professional organizations. Dr. Papas has published numerous papers based on her extensive clinical research experience in the fields of Geriatric Dentistry, Sjogren’s Syndrome, medically compromised patients, and xerostomia. She has been the principal investigator of 40 clinical trials and co-investigator of many more studies.
Papas first began studying Sjögren’s syndrome in the early 1990s. It was a natural extension of her work in geriatric dentistry and xerostomia, both of which involve, to one degree or another, how the salivary glands work, how they can be restored when they’re damaged, and how they affect a patient’s overall health. But there was another reason that Papas was drawn to Sjögren’s: 90 percent of the people who have it are female. “No one was studying it, or looking for a cure or treatment,” she said. “No one was doing anything—maybe because it was a woman’s problem, which, of course, was right up my alley.” What she soon noticed about Sjögren’s diagnoses was that they were often made very late—the average patient might suffer for seven years before anyone figured out what was wrong. The tennis star Venus Williams, for instance, was diagnosed with Sjögren’s in 2011 after having gone through years of misdiagnoses. That’s largely because the disease’s symptoms can be attributed to any number of things. While Sjögren’s is not curable, Papas said that her ultimate goal is to develop therapeutic interventions that block the process that causes the inflammation and other symptoms.
“She cooked and she cleaned and she was a typical Greek mom who also happened to be a brilliant and committed researcher who put Tufts on the map,” said Kathleen O’Loughlin, the executive director and chief operating officer of the American Dental Association and Papas’ former research associate and mentee. “Her two children are remarkable, which to me says that you can do it all. It’s just really hard work. She was a tremendous source of inspiration.”
She offers lectures to students, faculty, and the general population at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Dr. Papas is also part of the Tufts Dental Associate Group.
Though at an age (70) when many of her colleagues have already retired, Papas continues to maintain a full schedule of patient care and research and to mentor students and younger faculty. She has also earned the International Association of Dental Research’s most prestigious honor, the Distinguished Scientist Award. Her career reached a milestone in 2014, when the Commission on Dental Accreditation approved Tufts’ oral medicine residency program, one of only seven such accredited oral medicine programs in the nation.