Taking the path less traveled

Taking the path less traveled

Özlem Yilmaz’s work as a dentist and scientist is shedding light on periodontal disease

By Allyson Fox

Özlem Yilmaz (second from left) with members of her research team./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

Özlem Yilmaz, D.D.S., Ph.D., thinks outside the box.

A clinician-scientist and associate professor in the UF College of Dentistry, Yilmaz has spent her career studying a bacterium linked to severe forms of periodontal disease and thought to play a role in heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and stroke. In 2006, her lab uncovered how this microbe, p. gingivalis, spreads through epithelial cells inside the mouth, causing infection and slipping under the radar of the immune system.

But long before she had papers published in journals such as Infection and Immunity, Nature Reviews Microbiology and PLoS ONE, Yilmaz was a dental student at Istanbul University in Turkey. She was drawn to science, so she decided to follow an intense training route after earning her dental degree.

Interested in the cause of periodontal disease and how to cure it, she left her native Turkey to study at the University of Washington, Seattle, School of Dentistry. There, she earned her Ph.D., followed by postdoctoral training at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

Early in her career, she received a clinician-scientist K08 grant from the National Institutes of Health. This grant let her earn a salary and perform independent research, surrounded by people studying different topics.

“I was able to do oral research in an environment without many oral researchers during my postdoctoral years,” Yilmaz said. “It made me think outside the box. They were learning from me, and I was learning from them.”

During her time at the University of Washington, Yilmaz received the prestigious Warren G. Magnusson Excellence Award in Health Sciences. Her research into the interactions of p. gingivalis with gingival epithelial cells took her to the Institut Pasteur in Paris and subsequently to the UF College of Dentistry as an assistant professor in the departments of periodontology and oral biology.

Prior to joining UF, Yilmaz received an RO1 grant from the NIH, which she brought to UF in 2006. She has received additional NIH grants since then and moved her lab to the Emerging Pathogens Institute in 2010. Being in a multidisciplinary center has allowed her to team up with researchers from other disciplines and tackle problems in a new way.

“She has been an outstanding faculty member and major contributor to the EPI,” said Glenn Morris, M.D., M.P.H., a professor and director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. “She knows the importance of interdisciplinary research.”

Morris said he is impressed with Yilmaz’s lab work as well as with her ability to interact with patients.

“It’s important to maintain clinical linkage because it helps you understand why you are doing research,” Morris said. “She’s incredible. She is very strongly committed to her work and research.”

In addition to her work with patients and her research, she teaches and supervises dental students and residents and mentors undergraduate and graduate students in her lab. She enjoys mentoring students and playing a part in their success.

“I hope some will follow in my footsteps,” Yilmaz said. “I like seeing my students motivated and excited about science.

“Even though becoming a clinician-scientist was not the easiest path,” she said, “research can indeed be rewarding and make the hard work worth it.”

Yilmaz attributes her scientific achievements to the support she received from the NIH, her early mentors, her collaborators, as well as her lab members.

“I was extremely motivated, and continue to be,” she said.

She tries to share that message with her students.

“If they continue (on a clinician-scientist path), they will be rewarded,” she said.