Real research: Danielle Nogle and Emily Johnson are studying ways to improve oral health in low socioeconomic communities through education

Danielle Nogle and Emily Johnson. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Danielle Nogle and Emily Johnson. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Before starting a nutritional counseling research project in Hillside Court, Emily Johnson visited grocery stores in Richmond’s Southside to get an idea of the food that was available there.

I went to grocery stores in the community and created grocery lists based on the healthy food options that were available.

“I wanted to make sure that the grocery shopping recommendations I made for them were within the parameters of what they were able to access,” Johnson said. “I went to grocery stores in the community and created grocery lists based on the healthy food options that were available.”

The senior Virginia Commonwealth University student was one of two dental hygiene majors to receive a scholarship from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program this year. Both students conducted their research at Hillside Court, a public housing complex, and studied the effects of dental education on oral health.

“We know there is a need for improved oral health literacy and access in low-income communities,” senior dental hygiene student Danielle Nogle said. “Part of what we wanted to do was to go into our own backyard here in Richmond to see what the need was.”

Like Johnson, Nogle has spent the past four years volunteering with Mission of Mercy, which is a community-based organization that provides free health care and prescription medications to uninsured and underinsured individuals. “The purpose of the research project was to show that there is a need for dental care right in the VCU School of Dentistry’s backyard,” Johnson said, adding that the volunteering she does with Mission of Mercy takes her to rural communities in the farthest corners of the state. “We are so close to Hillside Court and yet we do nothing with them,” she said. “You can see the Richmond skyline from their neighborhood.”

Research Weeks

Each spring, VCU shines a spotlight on student research during Research Weeks, a series of events that takes place on both campuses and covers a wide range of disciplines. In honor of Research Weeks, we’re sharing the stories of six undergraduates who’ve had the chance to do meaningful and creative projects thanks to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. 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.

Johnson’s project, which was titled “The Effects of Dietary Counseling and Nutrition Education on Patient Awareness and Compliance,” set out to determine if nutrition education presentations were an effective method for minimizing cavity development risk in low socioeconomic communities. The 26-year-old visited the community multiple times with VCU School of Nursing students who were volunteering there to become acquainted with its residents. Her research involved conducting three oral health-focused nutrition counseling presentations at the neighborhood’s community recreation center. Before and after the presentations, she administered a survey to gauge the participants’ existing oral health knowledge and later to see if the participants had retained information from the presentation.

“I saw a significant increase in their understanding,” Johnson said of the study’s results, which she plans to present at the School of Dentistry Research and Clinic Day on April 14 as well as at the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity on April 20. Johnson is also preparing a manuscript based on her research to submit to two peer-reviewed academic journals.

“We prepare students for clinical practice, but we also introduce them to opportunities beyond clinical practice, and one of those opportunities is research,” said Joan Pellegrini, Ph.D., associate professor of oral health promotion and community outreach at the VCU School of Dentistry.

Pellegrini served as a mentor for both Johnson and Nogle throughout the research process. She believes that exposing students to field-based research during their undergraduate years will make them better health care practitioners when they graduate. “The goal is not to turn people into researchers,” Pellegrini said. “The goal is to make the clinicians that they will be when they graduate consumers of the research literature. Everything we do is geared around them becoming better practitioners.”

Nogle plans to work as a dental hygienist in a private practice after graduating in May, but she says the experience of seeing a research project from ideation to completion has helped her gain a deeper understanding of the valuable role that a dental hygienist can play in a community.

Nogle’s project was titled “A Pre-Post Survey Analysis of Altered Oral Hygiene Habits in a Low Socioeconomic Community After Oral Health Education.”

“The hypothesis was that if we did an interactive learning session within the community that it would help to increase the participants’ oral health literacy as well increase patient compliance,” she said. Nogle led an hour-long presentation on oral health literacy topics including brushing and flossing techniques, oral cancer screenings and tobacco cessation strategies to a group of 30 community members in December 2015. She administered a survey before and after the presentation to gauge whether participants retained the information she had presented to them and will also present her findings at the School of Dentistry Research and Clinic Day and the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity.

“What was nice about the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program scholarship was that we got to design our own hypothesis and then go into the community and follow it through to see what the results would be, which was something I had never done before” Nogle said. “It was a really great experience.”