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Steven Farnsworth: Dentist, Scientist & Eagle Scout

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Author: Charlotte Anthony | Category: Meet The Researcher | Physiology & Pharmacology | D.D.S./Ph.D. | September 28, 2016

Steven Farnsworth is a dental student and a graduate student. He is part of our D.D.S./Ph.D. program, a competitive program that is currently funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Only 17 universities in the country have COSTAR programs. This national program focuses on creating the next generation of dentist scientists to ensure the future of the nation's oral health.

Farnsworth interest in science and dentistry started at a young age. He explained that because his mother was a biology teacher, he was able to learn about science pretty early on.

“I learned about the birds and the bees from an anatomy textbook. As a child, I got a microscope for Christmas so I would say that my mother’s influence was a big reason why I developed myself in science,” he said.

With two brothers as dentist, Farnsworth remembers sitting around the dinner table.

“They had all these fun discussions about biology and science and I wanted to be part of those conversations,” he said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in religious studies, Farnsworth learned about D.D.S./Ph.D. programs while preparing to apply for dental school.

“I had always imagined practicing dentistry, and later coming back and teaching at a dental school. When I learned about the D.D.S/Ph.D. program, I realized I could transition into teaching much earlier. A research degree would allow me to do research and teach, while the D.D.S. would allow me to work with patients, treating individuals,” he said.

“But before starting a D.D.S./ Ph.D. program, I really wanted to get married and start real life. I worried that the such a program would be intense and if single, I likely wouldn’t spend the time to date. Lucky for me, I found a beautiful woman to be my companion in marriage,” Farnsworth said.

With only three D.D.S./ Ph.D. programs in Texas and two that had NIH funding at the time and none in Arizona, the young Farnsworths decided it was time to move.

Steven Farnsworth and his new bride, Amanda, moved to Dallas; where he applied for research technician employment and secured a position at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“Apparently lots of people wanted to be a technician there and it was really competitive. When I interviewed, the hiring PI told me that what made my application stand out to him was that I was an Eagle Scout… I was always told that getting an Eagle Scout would matter in my future, but I still can’t believe it did..” he recounted.

Under the mentorship of Dr. Jerry Shay & Dr, Woodring Wright, Farnsworth worked on a project with telomeres (the end of the chromosome of DNA).

“The thing about telomeres is that when our cells divide, our DNA gets shorter at its ends (the telomeres). Without an ability to reverse this shortening, our cells have limited replicative capacity.

This limitation – the hayflick limit - protects us against cancer. But in 90 percent of all cancers, a normally well restricted enzyme known as telomerase is activated, which enzyme adds DNA to the ends of telomeres allowing a reversal of this limitation. To fight cancer, inhibition of telomerase could help by limiting the cancer cells’ proliferation capacity. The thought that telomere inhibition may help prevent cancer recurrence from the cancer cell that got away,” he said.

Farnsworth said that this experience gave him a solid foundation in biomedical science.

“It was eye opening and I liked that they were using human cells for a clinical application. At Arizona State, with no medical school nearby, we looked at things like cyanobacteria for diesel fuel. But what really interests me are human cells and human health.”

Farnsworth then applied to our D.D.S/ Ph.D. program.

“I really liked that at UTHSCSA, the medical school, dental school, and graduate school are all next to each other so I thought this is a great place for multidisciplinary translational research,” he said. “When I came here I did rotations in a number of labs from tooth development to immune response to periodontal pathogens. I ended up joining Dr. Peter Hornsby’s lab who worked with pluripotent cells and regenerative medicine modeling.”

Farnsworth developed a project that relates to craniofacial regeneration- focusing on neural crest cells.

“Neural crest cells contribute to the sensory neurons in the head/neck region, salivary glands, teeth, bone, cartilage, etc….and many of the genes in neural crest development contribute to facial patterning with mutations associated malformations like cleft lip, a tooth agenesis (no teeth) and these same pathways when uncontrolled contribute to cancer,” he explained.

“In the future, I’d like to get involved with patients phenotyping, that perhaps we can intervene earlier with biologics,” he said.

Farnsworth explained that one of his career highlights was when he applied for and was accepted to the F30 fellowship through the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

“I was one of the first people outside of the M.D./Ph.D. students to take F-Troop and which led me to receive the F30. Dr. McManus has been a great asset for me and it’s a huge honor because there are only 29 F30 NIDCR grants active nationwide and our school has 6 of them. It’s made a huge difference in my career in terms of my confidence to move forward with apply for other grants.”

Farnsworth hopes to defend his dissertation in spring and graduate simultaneously from the dental school. Meanwhile, Farnsworth is applying for an orthodontics residency where he will combine clinical training with a postdoctoral fellowship experience.

“I owe my family a lot of time when I finish this. I have four girls now and when I’m not here, I’m with them on the trampoline or we go swimming,” he said. 

This article is part of the "Meet The Researcher" series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. 

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