“It’s really amazing to help someone understand a [concept] that doesn’t make sense,” Ko says. “It’s a great feeling. And I personally think I learn the most when I’m teaching.”
Academic dentistry, which entails treating patients, teaching students and conducting basic or applied research, is where Ko has set his sights, and Penn is equipping him with the skills he’ll need to follow in the footsteps of his professors. He has spent the last four years not only learning how to be a dentist but teaching courses and researching how diabetes affects bone-fracture healing. Now that he has completed his D.M.D. degree, Ko will stay on at Penn Dental Medicine for a residency in periodontics, the branch of dentistry focused on gums, connective tissues, and the bones surrounding teeth, as well as a research-focused doctor of science in dentistry degree. Ultimately, Ko hopes to use the skills he’s gaining to inspire the next generation of dental scholars.
Ko, who grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., became fascinated with science and math in high school. Unsure of which branch of science to pursue but with a growing interest in health sciences, he attended the University of California, San Diego, for physiology and neuroscience.
“I had never taken any physiology course before applying,” Ko says. “So I was pretty excited to explore these new topics.”
During his sophomore year at UCSD, Ko discovered his passion for helping other students when he served as a teaching assistant for an introductory biology course. It was also during his second year that Ko started working in a neuroscience lab. Given his interests, academia seemed like an obvious career path. Ko discovered dentistry almost by accident, in a manner that many undergrads will be familiar with.
“Being a college student, I was always looking for new organizations to get involved in,” Ko says. “So one day I saw a flier for free soda and pizza at a Pre-Dental Society meeting, and on a whim I just decided to go.”
It turned out to be a recruitment meeting for UCSD’s Pre-Dental Society. Intrigued by the Society’s community outreach clinic, Ko joined. The outreach program, which consists of volunteer dentists and student assistants, offers free dental care to underserved members of the San Diego community and invaluable real-world experience to college students interested in dentistry.
The program became a defining aspect of Ko’s college experience. When he went on to pursue a master’s in neuroscience at UCSD, he assumed the role of community outreach manager, which involved scheduling patients, taking care of instruments and helping train new recruits.
“It was really an honor, being able to treat patients, because they trusted us,” Ko says.
It was through Ko’s graduate research on insulin signaling in the brain that he first met Dana Graves, vice dean for scholarship and research at Penn Dental Medicine and Ko’s future advisor in the School’s Department of Periodontics.
“There was an aspect of my master’s research that required more expertise in cell biology and insulin signaling, which happened to be Dr. Graves’ area of expertise,” Ko says. “When I reached out to him and he learned of my interest in dentistry, he very much encouraged me to apply.”
As a dental student at Penn, Ko has continued to excel as an instructor, scientist and student. He’s taught courses every semester, running the gamut from pathology, physiology and anatomy to teaching third year students in the main clinic.With Graves as his advisor, Ko began studying the relationship between diabetes and bone healing through the dental school’s Summer Research Program after his first year.
When a diabetic patient fractures a bone, the healing process is typically very slow. To unravel the mechanisms behind this, Ko investigated how the growth of mesenchymal stem cells — the cells that proliferate into bone-growing osteoblasts — differs between diabetic and healthy mice.
At the end of the summer, Ko presented his work as part of Penn Dental Medicine’s Student Research Day, but that was only the beginning. He continued to study fracture healing with Graves for three years, transitioning to the research honor’s program during his second year.
“This was basically one big project that continued into my second, third and fourth year,” Ko says. “I didn’t want to stop.”
Ko’s hard work has led to important findings, some of which he and Graves published in January in the journal Diabetologia.
“We found that diabetes creates an inflammatory environment at the site of fracture healing,” Ko says. “What that essentially does is to make the mesenchymal stem cells more prone to death and less prone to proliferation. If there are less stem cells around, you get less healing.”
Ko’s research also identified a specific protein that suppresses mesenchymal stem cell proliferation.
“This essentially provides an understanding for how a systemic disease can really affect bone healing and how it occurs through regulating the molecular pathways within the stem cells,” he says.
Although academic dentistry can seem like a small field, Ko has found it to be immensely supportive. For the past two years, he has received travel awards to attend meetings of the International Association for Dental Research, where he has presented some of his own research findings. This has been an opportunity to engage with other research dentists, gain career advice and forge new collaborations.
Ko will continue to expand on this work during his D.Sc.D. degree, which combines clinical and research training in periodontics. He hopes to transition some of his findings from bone fracture healing to periodontal disease more broadly.
“This is all connected,” Ko says. “Eventually, these findings might be translated to periodontal soft and hard tissues or even other parts of the body.”
Rigorous as his schedule is, Ko has formed a close group of friends at Penn, who get together often to try new restaurants throughout Philadelphia. He has also found time to travel the East Coast, visiting Washington, New York City and Boston. As for where he’ll end up after Penn, Ko is keeping an open mind.
“As long as I can be part of ongoing dental education, interact with students and mentor them if they’re interested in the same career path, I’d be happy basically anywhere,” Ko says. “If I thought that all of this was not enjoyable, I wouldn’t be here. But the fact is, I get so much fulfillment from it, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”