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Yang Chai, professor and chair in craniofacial biology at the University of Southern California, was awarded the Paul Goldhaber Award at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine on Tuesday.
The Goldhaber Award, established in 1989, is presented to an individual whose work is renowned in the field of “oral and systemic health.” Awardees deliver the Goldhaber lecture as part of their acceptance of the award.
Chai’s lecture highlighted his education, experience in clinical practice, and research in craniofacial development — the study of the bones of the skull and face. Chai completed his undergraduate degree at Peking University, later attending USC — where he now serves as faculty — for his D.D.S. and Ph.D. in craniofacial biology.
Chai began his career as a practicing oral surgeon, frequently treating patients with cleft palate deformities and craniosynostosis, a birth defect resulting in skull and neurological abnormalities.
Chai attributes working with children affected by these deformities as his initial motivation to pursue craniofacial biology.
“One of the things that really challenged me early on was that families always wanted to know why their kids were affected,” Chai said.
Chai began research analyzing the similarities in craniofacial development between humans and animals. He noted that current procedures for treating cleft palates often initiate a series of operations and therapies rather than providing permanent repair.
“These kids are undergoing multiple surgical procedures that are costly — dental implants, facioplasty,” Chai said.
“So the surgery is just only the beginning,” he added.
His recent studies use mice, who share many neurological structures with humans, to model potential treatments that are more sustainable for patients in the long term.
“We wanted to use the animal model to study soft palate development in order to have a better understanding about why some effects occur in the cleft and the soft palate,” Chai said.
“We’re at the point where we can actually model some potential therapies to improve the treatment for our patients,” he added.
Chai has won multiple awards for his work in the field, alongside the 29th Goldhaber Award, including the International Association of Dental Research Distinguished Scientist Award in 2011.
Harvard School of Dental Medicine Dean William V. Giannobile, who attended the lecture and ceremony, commended Chai for being both a practicing clinician and a researcher.
“To have a person who really is right there — at the bedside or chairside, with the patient — and then also to be able to study and better understand how these diseases occur, I think was quite remarkable,” Giannobile said.
When asked for his advice to the next generation on having a successful career, Chai told attendees to “follow your passion.”
“Feel excited about what you want to do,” Chai said. “I can teach everything, but I can’t teach passion.”
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