Third-year dental student Mary Young has made the most of her research opportunities at Iowa.
Thursday, February 23, 2023

Some people take a while to figure out what they want to do in life. Other people know early on.  Third-year dental student Mary Young is in the latter camp.

“I was always interested in dentistry and knew that I wanted to be in a health care-related field and that I enjoyed working with my hands,” Young explained.

Although she didn’t have any specific connections to the dental profession except for her “super-involved” dentist, Shawn Hedlund ('91 DDS) of Melrose Dental Office in Iowa City, she made the most of what was available. Hedlund provided a great deal of insight into the process of getting where Young wanted to go, including encouraging her to get critical experiences in dental clinics, shadowing dentists, and so forth. 

As part of this process, she also began volunteering in scientific research laboratories in 8th grade with Gina Schatteman and later with Martine Dunnwald, and through those early connections, she began participating in Azeez Butali’s laboratory in high school, and continued as an undergraduate at Iowa and as a dental student throughout dental school, where Teresa Marshall also helped mentor her as part of the Dental Student Research Program.

Cleft lip and palate accounts 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. Since 2010, the Butali laboratory has established itself as the worldwide leader in research on the genetic characteristics related to orofacial cleft lip and palate in African populations. This population is the least studied population in the world, and yet it critically impacts many members of the African community. The Butali research team is not content to only make exciting discoveries, but they are also committed to bringing their findings to bear on pressing social, cultural, and religious challenges that sometimes serve as barriers to making positive differences in the lives of those affected by their research.

Young began working in the Butali lab in 2015 in the summer before her senior year of high school. Each year since, she continued to build skills in DNA extraction, genome sequencing, conducting experiments in animal models, targeted gene sequencing, and bioinformatics research.

Based on Young’s experience, Butali and Young have established something of a pattern for how young researchers develop in his lab with a clear progression in skill development and research competence.

“Back then, Dr. Butali was establishing training protocols for young members of his lab, and it all began with me sitting at the bench, jamming out to music, and extracting DNA from hundreds of samples. It was perfect!” said Young with a grin.

This pattern has served Young well. As a member of the Butali 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, a 2022 National Institutes of Health Summer Dental Research Award, and most recently, she was selected to be featured in the 2023 Office of the Vice President for Research’s Dare to Discover Banner campaign. As part of Butali’s research team, Young has been an author of 16 articles, including first author on one that included some of the biggest names in the field of the genetics of cleft lip and palate.

While at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland this past summer, Young’s project continued to focus on craniofacial biology, albeit in a different area than clefting in African populations. This project examines the mechanisms behind neural crest cell fate decisions and helps identify candidate targets for improved bone regeneration (see Presentation #8 in this booklet).

Butali has long commended Young’s dedication, hard work, and commitment.

“I am so proud of all that Mary has already accomplished, and I know that she will do great things and be an excellent representative for our college,” Butali said with pride as he added, “and I am fully committed to doing my part to ensure that Mary is able to become an independent, fully-funded dental scientist.”

Young isn’t sure what the future holds for her now.

“Whatever I end up doing, I know that I love seeing patients, doing dentistry, and contributing to evidence-based care. With all that I will learn clinically and my continued work in orofacial clefting genetics, I hope to combine both worlds into clinical dentistry that improves the lives of others,” she said.