An aspiring dentist discovers a passion for ecology

Drashty Mody is examining saltwater intrusion in wetlands — and the James River's water quality — as an undergraduate researcher.

Through her research, Drashty Mody has learned to see the connection between dentistry and ecolog...
Through her research, Drashty Mody has learned to see the connection between dentistry and ecology. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

Drashty Mody has wanted to be a dentist since she underwent a root canal as a seventh-grader in her native India. During the procedure, the dentist’s work inside Mody’s mouth appeared on a screen visible to those present. Mody’s mother and sister took one look and fled to the waiting room. Mody, on the other hand, thought, “I’m here. I can’t leave. I might as well enjoy the show.”

She was entranced. The dentist explained every step of the process — why he was doing what he was doing, why he was using one tool as compared to a different one — and Mody was startled to hear lessons resurface from her science class.

“Those four to five hours were a perfect mélange of various biological concepts that I was learning in my class that year. Almost like magic, they were all coming together right there in real life,” Mody said. “Since that day, I’ve wanted to be a dentist.”

The experience also helped instill in Mody an interest in drawing connections from the texts and lectures of the classroom to real-world practice. That has followed her to Virginia Commonwealth University and her budding research career. Mody, a biology major set to graduate in May, is on the pre-dentistry track at VCU. When she was placed last year in the research lab of Rima Franklin, Ph.D., associate professor of microbial ecology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Mody was nervous about her involvement and not sure she was in the best place for her. Franklin’s ecological research seemed like no more than a distant cousin to Mody’s passion for dentistry.

However, through the guidance of Franklin and Joseph Morina, a Ph.D. student in Franklin’s lab, Mody learned to see the connection between the two fields. Morina has repeatedly reminded her, “Where there is life, there is ecology.”

“Whether it is studying microbes in the freshwater wetlands or the oral cavity, both communities are affected by significant changes in their environment,” Mody said. “To be able to study the community succession and adaptation to new settings is very similar in the two seemingly distant fields of study. To be able to draw those parallels between two subjects has been the most fascinating and adventurous aspect of my research.” 

It also has made for compelling conversations during dental school admissions interviews. Professors inevitably are curious to hear why Mody has spent so much time on ecological research, and she has enjoyed speaking about both the connections she has learned and how important it has been for her to do research outside of her academic concentration. Most importantly, she said, this opportunity continues to help her develop the mindset of a lifelong learner.

“Seeing how the same biological concepts connect health care with ecology has opened up a new appreciation and curiosity in me for what research can do,” Mody said.

In the lab, Mody has studied nitrogen cycling in wetlands and the alterations in the microbial communities (structure and functional genes) due to saltwater intrusion. In addition, she has helped with testing the James River for water quality. From the outset, Franklin said, Mody has demonstrated the patience and diligence to excel in research.

“She always has to understand every detail of every step, and that means she’s usually in a place where she can make suggestions and figure out how to bounce back when things don’t quite go as you expect,” Franklin said. “That’s something you usually see with someone who has been in graduate school for a while, not someone who is an undergraduate.”

Mody’s family moved to the United States when she was in ninth grade, and she graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Virginia. At VCU, she initially devoted her attention to her classes, and she was a member of LEAD, a four-semester living-learning program for undergraduate students who are dedicated to developing their leadership skills. Eventually, however, she applied for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and was admitted to Franklin’s lab.

Woman in blue shirt holding lab sampling equipment.
“I want to be somebody who practices dentistry clinically and someone who is also on the forefront of looking at how we come up with these treatments and materials we use and how can we make them better,” Mody said. “That’s research." (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Her work with Franklin and Morina has inspired her to shift her career plans. Mody, who has traveled to Peru and Ecuador to work in mobile health clinics as part of the organization MEDLIFE at VCU, now wants to incorporate a research element into her dental education and career. She was recently admitted to one dentistry school with a dual degree program that would allow her to pursue that goal.

“I want to be somebody who practices dentistry clinically and someone who is also on the forefront of looking at how we come up with these treatments and materials we use and how can we make them better,” Mody said. “That’s research. I wouldn’t have ever recognized this curiosity in me, which has become a very important element of my future career, if I had not had the UROP experience here.”

Mody also is interested in becoming an educator and has already played the role of teacher at VCU. She serves as an undergraduate teaching assistant for the microbiology lecture and teaching labs, and Franklin said Mody demonstrates rare skill explaining concepts to students, driven in part by her research experience and the connections she can now draw.

“She doesn’t just see medical versus environmental or biology versus chemistry — she doesn’t necessarily see those things as distinct anymore,” Franklin said. “That allows her to connect things when she’s teaching, and that’s really fun to watch. The students aren’t expecting that from an undergraduate, and I think it inspires them.”

As part of her TA duties, Mody is overseeing a research project in which students swab microorganisms from random surfaces and then throughout the semester participants run various tests to identify their “unknown” microbe. Mody has worked through the list with the students, trying different diagnostic tools as they both fail and succeed in their quest to identify bacteria from 60 different swabs, and she has found the process thrilling.

“It makes me feel alive in a way that I don’t think anything else ever has before,” Mody said.

Mody said her work as a researcher has helped strengthen her overall cultural competence. She hopes to continue to develop both her people skills and her technical skills so that when she is a health care provider she can provide service similar to the Indian dentist who calmly talked her through the root canal, transforming a daunting experience into a life-changing one.

“I want to be able to talk to people who don’t really understand modern treatments or the complex science behind them. I want to be able to communicate the science connections in a creative way to my patients and help them learn to trust them,” Mody said. “What fascinates me the most about dentistry and ecology is that there’s always something new and unexpected going on in the microbiomes in your oral cavity and the wetlands. To be able to see and understand these processes on a microscopic level in your mouth, your smile and the soils is mind-blowing to me. Why wouldn’t I want to know everything I could about that?”

 

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagementand guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.