Dr. Christopher Hughes is the new chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry.
Dr. Christopher Hughes is the new chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry.
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New chair of pediatric dentistry settles into southern hospitality

Published on Monday, July 16, 2018

By: Alana Bowman

Dr. Christopher Hughes, new chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry, has lived a lot of places in his lifetime – Boston, Pittsburg, Long Island, Ohio, Maine and New Jersey to name a few. However, he has never lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Until now.

Hughes left a distinguished position as pediatric chair at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in New Jersey to step into a decidedly more low-key position at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry and Batson Children’s Hospital to the surprise – and sometimes dismay – of friends and colleagues.

He and his wife, Dorothy, began to enjoy the reactions when they told friends of his decision to move so far south.

“You can imagine the looks on the faces of people in New Jersey – consummate New Yorkers – when you say you are leaving” to be chair of a department in Mississippi, Hughes said. “They literally started stuttering in their speech.”

It didn’t take long for Hughes to realize that the belief that Mississippians are friendly is neither myth nor stereotype. He explained to a friend after sitting in a busy hallway people watching, that “it’s mildly considered bad manners in Mississippi if you are walking past someone in the hallway to not at least nod and acknowledge them.”

Indeed, if the person is an acquaintance, one must stop to inquire about the health of family members, as in, “How’s your mama ‘n ‘em?”

Hughes said that Mississippi and New Jersey are two extremes. “In New Jersey, your colleagues will walk by, and you’re not going to say anything to them,” he said.

The recruitment process was not Hughes’s first visit to the Hospitality State. His wife has family ties in Mississippi. Her summers were spent traveling from California to Natchez.

“The Mississippi connections are endless,” Hughes said. When he received the letter of recruitment from the dental school last February and showed it to his wife, she was excited at the prospect of moving back to her roots, if not excited about the prospect of packing.

Hughes said that two things that made the position appealing were the “beautiful facility for pediatric dentistry” and the reputation of Dr. David Felton, dental school dean.

“We are delighted that Dr. Hughes has joined us as our new chair of Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health,” said Felton. “He brings a wealth of clinical, educational and research experience to our program, at both the pre-doctoral as well as at the post-graduate levels. As we move toward our CODA accreditation site visit for the graduate program in 2019, his leadership will enable us to enhance an already excellent program.”

A graduate from Colby College in Maine, Hughes said he developed an affinity for academics early on, even before his interest in dentistry. “Academia [at Colby] is revered,” he said. “I always held academic people in high regard.”

During a general practice residency at Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, Hughes became interested in pediatric dentistry. He went on to complete a pediatric dental residency at Case Western Reserve University, Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.

After completing the pediatric residency, Hughes spent five years at the National Institute of Dental Research on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He received a National Research Service Award to complete a postdoctoral fellowship in the Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and also a clinical staff fellowship in the Patient Care and Clinical Investigations Branch of the NIDR.

“They picked two candidates a year,” Hughes said. “I was lucky to have it, and that was just a phenomenal experience.”

Hughes said that his interest in research was piqued during the pediatric residency when he worked with a mentor who was a “committed academic” and shared his interest in microbiology. His research areas of interest include the oral microbiome and how it affects the severity of childhood caries, commonly referred to as cavities.

“The idea is that not every kid that has tooth decay has it for the same reason,” Hughes said. “There could be other reasons. Someone might have an unusually aggressive flora. Someone may have an extreme diet.” He said that diet and oral flora, the bacteria and other microorganisms that normally inhabit the oral cavity, are the top two contributors to childhood caries.

Hughes hopes to continue this research and expand it to Mississippi patients. “In the context of genomics, you have to have thousands of subjects. Mississippi is a good place to expand the study, but again, the numbers of patients you have to recruit is a little humbling.”

Hughes has met with faculty from the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Molecular and Genomics Core Facility, and all are excited about possible collaboration. Hughes sees it as a good opportunity to involve residents from the Pediatric Dentistry and Community Oral Health program in research.

For now, Hughes’s top priority is adding to the pediatric faculty. He said that the department is actively recruiting, but the task is a challenging one. “It’s difficult to recruit pediatric dentists because pediatric dentists go into dental school because they want to practice,” Hughes said. “You’re talking about a small percentage of people in pediatric dentistry who have a strong academic interest.”

Despite the challenge, Hughes is still happy with his decision to move to Mississippi. “I still say that the good thing about Mississippi is how good people are,” he said. “Another reason we like Mississippi is the weather. Low cost of living, the weather, my wife’s connection to Mississippi and the great opportunities here – it was a no-brainer.”