Follow Your Passion: Spotlight on Dr. Stephanie Momeni
For Stephanie Momeni, Ph.D., an NIDCR K99/R00 postdoctoral scholar at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), passion and resilience are key to navigating one's career trajectory. While Momeni's path to dental microbiology was far from linear, her journey was guided by a phone call that piqued her curiosity. "I basically fell into being an oral microbiology scientist," she said.
After completing her bachelor's degree in biology in 1997, and receiving several inquiries about lab positions that didn't necessarily grab her attention, one proposition left her feeling intrigued. "I was determined to find something that sparked my interest," she explained. "I need to be challenged and engaged. I received a call from a dental school, and I, having never heard of dental research, thought, ‘what is that? What kind of research are they doing?' That's what sparked my initial interest." The lab in question, managed by Dr. Page Caufield, focused on investigating why some populations of children—including children living in the U.S., Mexico and China—developed severe tooth decay, and why other children did not. The team also considered why sometimes, even if a child brushes their teeth and maintains good dental hygiene, they will develop tooth decay. Considering the public health impact of this research deepened Momeni's passion for her work. "I especially liked the idea of helping children," she added.
After working as a medical technologist following undergrad, Momeni joined Dr. Caufield's lab in 2000, housed within the Specialized Caries Research Center at University of Alabama at Birmingham. She instantly reveled in the collaborative environment that allowed her to be creative in her research pursuits. At the time, Momeni had a bachelor's degree and was not formally pursuing additional education. Still, she was expected to participate in all lab activities, from conducting tests to creating progress reports. "I was part of the team, my input was valued," she shared.
After just a few weeks of working at the lab part-time, Momeni was offered a full-time position as a research assistant. In particular, the team valued her ability to conduct reproducible polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which were still manual at that time. "I deeply appreciated the amount of time that Dr. Yihong Li and Dr. John Ruby spent training and mentoring me. They were very patient teaching me." Momeni explained that it was Li's time commitment and encouragement to 'go back to school' that ultimately encouraged her to pursue her graduate education.
While working various lab jobs, Momeni continued her education, starting with a master's degree in business administration in 2006. She earned a master's degree in dentistry oral microbiology in 2010 and a Ph.D. in biology-oral microbiology in 2016—all from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Momeni explained that she delayed earning her Ph.D., in part, due to financial constraints, and instead pursued part-time master's programs that allowed her to work and study at the same time.
Momeni identifies as a woman microbiologist and of Cherokee ancestry. She is also a first-generation college student. "I have experienced gender and age bias from other scientists from time to time, but the socioeconomic barrier has been my greatest DEI challenge. This is one of the areas I strongly advocate for future- and early-career scientists," she said. "Our society should not miss out on quality academic microbiology research talents because of financial barriers to education and career opportunities. We must make scientific research opportunities more affordable and accessible to students with the aptitude to become our future scientists."
Momeni emphasized a need for more flexible programs that allow students to simultaneously obtain their degrees while holding paid positions. She also emphasized the need for greater tuition assistance, adding that there is a need for more institutional training grant positions and more available student loan repayment plans for biomedical scientists. "I am forever appreciative for the NIH Loan Repayment Program, which was critical in allowing me to pursue my Ph.D.," Momeni said.
When she joined the team at OHSU, she was selected for the American Association for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Research's MIND the Future Program—a year-long program that works to bolster diversity and inclusion in the biomedical sciences. Through this program, Momeni is exploring how to become more involved in OHSU's DEI efforts. She is currently working as a consultant on two R25 grants that aim to improve diversity and inclusion within the oral microbiology sciences at OHSU, by introducing high school students and undergraduates to the broad range of dental research careers available.
Presently, Momeni's postdoc research focuses on investigating a novel biosynthetic gene cluster (BGC) in Streptococcus mutans, which demonstrates traits known to contribute to early tooth decay, such as formation of acidic biofilms and survival in oxidative stress. There's always been a theory of a particular bacterium or a particular community of bacteria leading to tooth decay," she said. "No one's found it yet. However, we found the strain type that has our biosynthetic gene cluster and is very prevalent among high-caries risk children in our study population." Momeni's celebrates her "Eureka" moments with each new discovery related to this BGC and is excited to continue collecting data to investigate her hypothesis. "Our new metabolomics data is very exciting and will give us many new directions," she added.
Additionally, Momeni's team is working on creating an S. mutans metabolomics reference library, pulling data from 34 representative strains of S. mutans. "One of the challenges is most everything from human metabolomics is pretty well known, in terms of which metabolites are available. Bacterial metabolites are a different situation, where many of the metabolites are unknown," she explained. "Those are potential new therapeutics, new antibiotics and new treatments that we're missing out on. Many of the scientists that I've talked to say, ‘there are so many unknowns, it's overwhelming to [investigate].'" Still, Momeni is determined.
Using the 10 most common strains of S. mutans of the previously identified 34, her team has partnered with IROA Technologies to develop the S. mutans metabolomics reference library. Having bacterial specific metabolite reference libraries allows for higher quality metabolomics data. Momeni said it also reduces noise in data sets, allows for identification of lower abundance metabolites and permits relative quantitation of metabolites. "I want to create what I call the Marvel Universe of oral metabolomics," she said.
Momeni's team aims to utilize the metabolic insights gathered from S. mutans as a foundation to compare with other bacteria. She hopes that by creating this library, other scientists will feel inspired to use her work as a primer to do the same with their own bacterial samples. This, she said, could lead to an integrated collaboration resulting in an accurate and validated oral metabolite reference library that will provide a quantum leap for oral microbiology research.
As completing this process for hundreds of strains can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming for one lab, Momeni suggests that if each research team with different bacterial collections focuses on a handful of metabolites, collectively, the library will start to grow. "If 2 or 3 of the metabolites turn out to be natural products that we can use, either as a therapeutic or as something that can be a biological marker for identifying high risk, that's what makes it worthwhile," she said. "Ultimately, we expect some metabolites to help us better understand how and which metabolites are contributing to health outcomes and disease."
Reflecting on her own microbiology journey, Momeni advises that scientists at any career level take time to remember what they're passionate about and what drives their curiosity. This, she believes, will help guide them toward innovative discoveries and help bolster their resilience.
As a mentor through several programs involving high school students, undergraduates, dental residents, master's students and Ph.D. candidates, Momeni encourages students to pursue their interests through various engaging passion projects, which she believes will help them find meaning behind the science. "If you have [a passion project] in mind, and your mentor says, ‘that's not where you should focus your time,' consider asking to make it a side project. Often, it is a side project that turns out to be that new, fresh perspective that is different from what a lab has been working on for so long that can lead to a scientific breakthrough."