An Inquiring Mind

Clinician, academic and University of Alberta
post-graduate researcher Dr. Devarasa Murugeshappa

Dr. Devarasa Murugeshappa observes as his student examines the teeth and radiographs of an ailing patient.

The nine-year-old girl has been suffering from a toothache for the past couple of weeks. Today, her parents have brought her to the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry Oral Health Clinic to find out why.

“On the pain scale, what’s the pain?” Dr. Murugeshappa asks the third-year Doctor of Dental Surgery student who is handling the case. After examining the patient, Murugeshappa helps the student determine the next steps for the child, which will involve either a root canal or extraction of the decayed molar.

As a specialist in pediatric dentistry, and clinical lecturer in both pedodontics and endodontics, Dr. Murugeshappa is ideally equipped to oversee this case. And he says it’s rewarding to pass on that knowledge to the next generation of dentists.

“We can see that sense of happiness in the students when they’re successful [and] that’s really encouraging,” says the soft-spoken educator. “As instructors,” he continues, “we each play our role… to help them graduate and serve the community.”

Although it was the opportunity to do doctoral research that initially brought Dr. Murugeshappa to the U of A two-and-a-half years ago, his well-rounded background is an asset, explains Dr. Maryam Amin, professor and associate chair of research with the School of Dentistry. Amin, who is also Dr. Murugeshappa’s PhD supervisor, says his experience as a clinician, academic and post-graduate researcher is a powerful combination.

“As a clinician, you’re trained to provide a standard of care for your patients… When you embark on a research career, you also produce research that can be valuable to other clinicians,” says Dr. Amin.

After training in India for his Doctor of Dental Surgery and Master of Dental Surgery in pediatrics, Dr. Murugeshappa juggled a clinical practice, teaching, and research for 12 years, first in India, then moving to Malaysia. Now 41, Murugeshappa says he jumped at the chance to do more research at the U of A.

“Without research, there is no improvement in clinical care”, he says.

One example he points to is ongoing international research that could one day see stem cells used to repair decaying teeth and regenerate damaged dental tissues.

As a PhD candidate, Dr. Murugeshappa is now building on his experience in pediatric dentistry by researching adolescent behaviour around oral health. Whether due to their diet, time constraints or reduced parental influence, Murugeshappa says teenagers are at increased risk of dental problems.

His research focuses on teenagers’ perception of oral health matters and their views on using social media to learn about oral health.

The project also involves an interdisciplinary team, including experts in pediatric dentistry, public health, psychology, and sociology.

As part of the study, Dr. Murugeshappa’s team interviewed adolescents from the Edmonton area, both individually and in focus groups.

They found that while teens are generally aware of the importance of proper oral hygiene, Murugeshappa says, “there is a lack of motivation to consistently implement these habits.” Though the teenagers were comfortable using social media platforms, like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, few used social media to educate themselves about oral health.

Depending on the results of further research, Dr. Murugeshappa says social media platforms could potentially be used as a tool to improve dental health for young people. He recently presented some of his findings at the International Association for Dental Research convention in New Orleans.

“Without research, there is no improvement in clinical care.”

Dr. Murugeshappa credits his cousin, also a dentist, for inspiring his career path. “I have seen my own relatives who have taken orthodontic treatment. I’ve seen how drastically it’s made an improvement in their appearance and their smile,” he says, adding that it also enhanced their quality of life through greater confidence.

Having taught dentistry now in three countries, he says he’s been surprised by one thing: how advanced Canadian dental students are compared to their international counterparts.

“It could be because of the curriculum. And also [many domestic students] say they have started preparing since high school [by doing job shadows or taking targeted courses, for example],” Dr. Murugeshappa says.

As he settles into life in Canada, Dr. Murugeshappa wants to expand his research while continuing to teach.

Of course, he acknowledges that there’s more to life than just dentistry. His family – which includes his wife, Swarna Yerebaiapura Math, who is also a dentist currently doing a PhD in dental radiology, and six-year-old daughter – enjoys connecting with friends to celebrate cultural festivals.

“I’m really liking my experience here,” he says. “My colleagues and teachers are so encouraging and so welcoming.”

— Article and photos by Karen Kwan

This article appears in the March/April 2024 edition of the ADA Connection magazine.