When Martha Somerman, DDS, Ph.D. accepted the job as director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in 2011, as the organization’s first female in that role, she described it as “tremendously exciting” to “lead an entire field of scientific research.” Ten years later, she marks another unprecedented distinction, as the first woman to earn a Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research from the American Dental Association.

On Wednesday, October 13, in Las Vegas, at the closing session of the ADA’s first SmileCon, Dr. Somerman, a research Goliath of the first order was presented with the organization’s award. Prior to her retirement in 2019, Dr. Somerman, spent three years among the top tier of the Incisal Edge 32 Most Influential People in Dentistry.

In a report from ADANews, Dr. Somerman shared this comment:

“This was a beautiful surprise for me. I am humbled and honored that I have been selected as the recipient of the 2021 Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research. I was told I am the first woman to win this award, a true ‘wow’ moment and one of so much significance to me. It was almost 50 years ago that I graduated from dental school, class of 1975, a class of 200, with four women, 2% of the class. We’ve come a long way.”

comment from Martha Somerman, DDS, Ph.D to ADA News upon learning she was being recognized
with the ADA Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Dental Research

Somerman has been universally hailed for the quality of NIDCR research toward the improvement of dental, oral and craniofacial health, and for “NIDCR 2030,” an initiative that seeks to infuse whole-body health as part of the organization’s mission.

During her tenure, the NIDCR funded breakthrough research, including the discovery of 41 genes that researchers at Columbia University believe may cause gum disease. The agency’s own scientists, meanwhile, were part of a team that found ways anthrax can be used to fight cancerous tumors.

In the year prior to her retirement, Dr. Somerman was responsible for a fiscal-2019 budget of $462 million, 81 percent of which directly funded oral-health research.

In 2011, the year she became the agency’s director, Dr. Somerman also established the Laboratory of Oral Connective Tissue Biology, which falls under the purview of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, another branch of the NIH. For her own research at NIDCR, Somerman worked as an adjunct investigator there, studying how different cells and signals affect the development of teeth, the bones they rest on and the tissues that connect the two. Through its research, the lab aims to discover more effective ways to encourage cell regeneration in the mouth.

Dr. Martha Somerman: a ‘rock star’ in the field of oral biology

“In the field of oral biology, she really is a rock star,” said Steve Steinberg of Dr. Somerman in a 2019 interview with Incisal Edge magazine. As communications director at the University of Washington School of Dentistry in Seattle, Steinberg worked closely with Dr. Somerman during her nine-year tenure as its dean. “She’s held in high regard by the research community.”

A Brooklyn native, she was dean of the University of Washington School of Dentistry for nearly a decade, having begun her teaching career at the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1984.

According to ADANews, as winner of the Gold Medal Award, Dr. Somerman will receive $25,000, a gold medallion and the opportunity to select a fellowship recipient who will be awarded $20,000 to support their own research.

Read more about Dr. Somerman’s Gold Medal Award HERE.