On May 12, Azeez Butali, professor in the Department of Oral Pathology, Radiology, and Medicine received a Faculty Award during the University of Iowa 2022 International Student Graduation. Waheed Awotoye nominated his mentor, Azeez Butali, for the award. Earlier this spring, Awotoye defended his dissertation under Butali’s direction, and he has now graduated with his PhD.
This Faculty Award recognized Butali’s efforts to support international students like Awotoye. Butali is a devoted mentor, and he is well known for fostering supportive and collaborative environments where his students—both international and domestic—can grow and reach their potential. This is the second award in two years that Butali has received recognizing his role as a mentor.
Research and Scientific Development
Butali is the world’s foremost expert in the genetics of cleft lip and palate among African populations. Cleft lip and palate account for a significant proportion of neonatal birth defects in Africa, but there is very little data on the genetic causes of the condition for this population. He has received numerous National Institutes of Health and foundation grants supporting this research. Numerous international researchers and students interested in this work have sought out Butali as a research mentor.
Awotoye is one of those students, and he buys into Butali’s vision for the field.
Butali is “building a critical mass of underrepresented groups in the field of human genetics and genomics research,” Awotoye said, indicating that he plans to be part of these effort by also doing the work of “identifying and accommodating future mentees and increasing collaborative productivity in the research field.”
Awotoye is already living out that vision. Since 2020, Awotoye has been an author of 11 research articles in the field as part of Butali’s research team, and he is committed to becoming a clinician-scientist who not only works to discover genetic risk factors for craniofacial birth defects, but also translate those discoveries into better management strategies.
Chichi Adeleke, a fourth-year dental student from Ames, IA, has been one of Butali’s students as part of the Dental Student Research Group. She was profiled in the University of Iowa’s Dare to Discover campaign for her work in Butali’s research team, and she authored seven publications as part of his team.
Like Awotoye, Adeleke speaks highly of Butali’s role as a scientific and research mentor.
“He makes every experience a learning experience by always asking questions and prompting me to rationalize out my thoughts and decisions,” she explained.
Mary Young, a second-year dental student from Iowa City, began working with Butali as a junior in high school and she is also part of the Dental Student Research Group. As a member of his research team, she has received numerous prestigious awards for her work, including a 2021 Student Research Fellowship from the American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research, and a 2022 National Institutes of Health Summer Dental Research Award. As part of Butali’s research team, Young has been an author of 11 articles, including first author on one that included some of the biggest names in the field of the genetics of cleft lip and palate.
According to Young, Butali set her up for this success.
“Not only have I learned a lot about research and the science behind our projects, I have also learned how to become a better communicator and practiced how to effectively work on a team,” Young explained.
According to his students, one of the things that sets Butali apart is his character. And that inspires his students to embody the same kinds of traits that Butali has.
For Adeleke, Butali is “a natural-born leader” who is “simultaneously both honest and encouraging.”
It is difficult to embody both of those traits. Frankness and honesty delivered without care and concern can be devastating, but encouragement without honest feedback leaves a person directionless.
That’s one reason that Young says that Butali has helped her grow not only as a researcher and scientist, but also as human being.
Butali “instills values like honor and integrity [for those] he takes under his wing,” she said. And this inspires Young and Butali’s other students to try to embody that lead the kind of lives that make a meaningful difference for others.
Awotoye concurred saying that among Butali’s students, Butali’s “pay it forward” approach is becoming the norm for all of them.
Changing the World by Making a Difference Here and Now
This mentality is making a difference. Butali’s efforts are beginning to create a community of scholars from underrepresented groups—whether internationally or domestically— in human genetics and genomics research.
But that difference is not limited to this area of research.
As Adeleke begins the next stage in her journey as an orthodontics resident at the University of North Carolina, she wants to make a difference wherever she is.
“Regardless of where I end up in my career, my ultimate goal is to be an impactful force in my patient’s lives and in my community. I hope to use my knowledge and skills to serve those in need and to serve as a role model for minority youth,” she said.
Young has also been inspired by this vision.
“Dr. Butali embodies all the characteristics of a phenomenal mentor and has opened my eyes to opportunities that I never thought possible. He is not only a research mentor, but also a life mentor, and he has motivated me to strive to make a bigger impact on the world than I ever could have imagined.”
Each of these three students know the deep and profound impact that Butali has had on their lives and their work.
“I am confident he will continue to mold many great dentists and great scientists,” Adeleke said as she nears the end of her time in Butali’s research team.