Meet the Researcher: Patricia Hare, School of Dental Medicine

Patricia Hare, a student in the DMD/Ph.D. program at the UConn School of Dental Medicine, wants her work to have a positive impact on people's lives.

Student Patricia Hare at work in the lab.

Patricia Hare already has broad experience in multiple fields of research (Ethan Giorgetti/UConn Health Photo)

Growing up, Patricia Hare’s home junk drawer was populated with surgical scissors and hemostats rather than rubber bands and coupon clippers.

Her mother worked in marketing for medical supply companies, sparking an early interest in the health care field for Hare, who is now pursuing her dual doctorates of dental medicine and philosophy (DMD and Ph.D.) at UConn’s School of Dental Medicine at UConn Health in Farmington.

Before coming to UConn, Hare majored in chemistry at Carleton College in Minnesota. One summer, she shadowed a community health dentist with HealthFinders Collaborative where she watched patients come in experiencing pain and leave feeling better that same day.

“I truly fell in love with it,” Hare says. “I realized dentistry was a way to change someone’s life instantly.”

Hare realized she wanted to combine her newfound passion for dentistry with her developing love for basic science and research, leading her to explore DMD/Ph.D. programs.

One element of UConn’s DMD/Ph.D. program that was especially attractive to Hare was that students are encouraged to focus on becoming better future clinicians. Grades aren’t the only measure of success.

“Taking the pressure off every test and assignment allows me to focus on becoming the best dentist I can be for the patients I treat,” Hare says.

A Winding Research Path

Hare’s earliest first-hand research experience was working as a summer research assistant at Carleton College. She focused on aminoacyl tRNA synthetases in helminths, infection-causing parasitic worms that are a significant problem in developing parts of the world.

Hare’s task was to get bacteria to express enough of this protein to study it effectively. This work did not go as planned, teaching Hare an important lesson about the research process.

“I liked lab courses a lot, but everyone knows what’s supposed to happen during a lab,” Hare says. “When you’re doing work no one’s done before, there’s no reassurance.”

After graduation, Hare worked as a research technician in Boston studying non-small cell lung cancer. This experience showed Hare that she wanted to design her own experiments.

“I was the hands behind the research,” Hare says. “But I didn’t get to do a lot of independent design, which encouraged me to seek out work I can call my own.”

Before starting UConn’s program in fall 2019, Hare worked with UConn associate professor of biomedical engineering Tannin Schmidt studying Sjogren’s Syndrome. Sjogren’s Syndrome is an autoimmune disease that causes dry eye and dry mouth. In addition to being uncomfortable, dry mouth can lead to tooth decay since saliva plays an important role in preventing harmful bacteria from eating away at tooth enamel.

Schmidt had previously discovered the existence of lubricin, an important protein for joint lubrication, in the eye.

Over that summer, they hoped to answer the question of if there was lubricin in saliva and if there was a difference in the amount of lubricin in Sjogren’s Syndrome patients and a control population.

Interestingly, they found evidence that lubricin is more concentrated in Sjogren’s Syndrome patients’ saliva, but that there was also less saliva in general. This finding opened the path for further questions and research.

Finding Focus

Hare’s early experience with research led her through a variety of fields from cancer to parasites to autoimmune diseases. Now, Hare has taken those experiences to determine what she wants to focus on as a burgeoning independent researcher.

“I didn’t see myself as a PI [principal investigator]. I thought all you do is write grants and you don’t get to actually do the research,” Hare says. “But I’m starting to understand that’s not necessarily true. There can be that balance between doing science, directing science, and balancing those things with teaching or clinical care.”

During an Independent Learning Opportunity centered around physicians in science, Hare found her way to Wendy Mok’s lab. Mok, an assistant professor in UConn’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics, studies how bacteria persist after antibiotic treatment. Persistence occurs when most bacteria are killed by antibiotic treatment, but a small population survive and reproduce, keeping the infection going.

This baffling phenomenon is different from antibiotic resistance, in which bacteria pass on specific genetic traits that allow them to resist antibiotic treatment. With persistence, there is no identifiable genetic reason why some bacteria survive.

This past summer, Hare worked with a postdoctoral researcher in Mok’s lab who was studying how microbial interactions affect persistence of Staphylococcus aureus, the bacteria responsible for a variety of infections, after fluoroquinolone antibiotic treatment.

For her own thesis work, Hare will perform novel research looking at the molecular events occurring during persister recovery.

“No one’s looked at that before. I’m excited to look into this new area and try to find answers,” Hare says.

Hare hopes to open up knowledge of how and why this occurs, so scientists may eventually develop ways to circumvent it.

Important Conversations

In addition to her research and clinical activities, Hare is currently part of a diversity group in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics having important discussions about the roles of race, racism, and prejudice in science. The group is looking for ways to improve diversity and foster an inclusive environment in the department.

“It offers up a good space for us to talk about these issues and acknowledge they’re not separate from science,” Hare says. “I’m super proud to be part of a department that’s doing that.”

Hare saw first-hand the importance of the intersections of science, health care, and diversity when working with HealthFinders Collaborative. She had been studying Spanish and saw how much of a barrier language can pose for patients trying to access health care.

“I realized there was a big gap in the care we could provide if we don’t speak a common language,” Hare says.

An Open Plan for the Future

After graduation, Hare hopes to find a career that allows her to combine her interest in clinical practice, research, and teaching. But for now, she says she is just enjoying being in school.

“My entire life I’ve had a very set plan,” Hare says. “Now, every day I’m learning about more possibilities so I’m trying to keep it open for now.”

Hare wants to incorporate teaching into her career so she can help students in the same way her own professors helped her learn to love even the most unexpected subjects, like general chemistry.

“I had an amazing professor who made the subject something I wanted to know more about. I’d love to spark that interest for students someday,” Hare says.

Ultimately, Hare wants to have the greatest impact she can on improving people’s lives, whether through teaching, research, or in clinical practice.

“Research is one way to have that overarching impact by developing therapies and approaches,” Hare says. “Teaching for me became another way to have that kind of impact.”

 

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