DMD/PhD Student Spotlight: James Jang

Student Spotlight James JangSeung Jin “James” Jang was born in South Korea, grew up in Gainesville, graduated from F.W. Buchholz High School in and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in 2010 from the University of Florida in interdisciplinary biochemistry and molecular biology, graduating summa cum laude. After college, Jang worked at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, from 2012 to 2016 in different laboratories and during his time there observed clinical and basic science research studies associated with the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research, or NIDCR, which sparked an interest in pursuing a career in dentistry.

“At the NIH I had the opportunity to participate in clinical rounds to shadow NIDCR faculty members and dental clinical research fellows. The NIDCR has a special post-doctoral research fellowship for DDS/DMDs and DDS/DMD/PhDs,” Jang said.

The deputy director of the NIDCR during Jang’s time there was A. Isabel Garcia, D.D.S., who retired from the NIH in 2015 and joined the UF College of Dentistry as dean.

James Jang in lab“Despite the busy schedules of Dr. Garcia and Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., who was the acting director of the NIH, they took time to meet with me and took an interest in my career aspirations and gave me precious advice,” Jang said.

Jang said that meeting with Garcia and Tabak was a very inspiring and motivating experience for a pre-dental student who was interested in an academic career path in dentistry.

Jang returned to UF in 2016 as a research assistant in the UFCD laboratory of Zsolt Toth, Ph.D., who had just joined the UF Department of Oral Biology. Jang helped set up Toth’s UF lab where they are using several methods to study Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, or KSHV, such as the homolog recombination system to make mutant and recombinant KSHV clones.

“This was a valuable experience for me, as I learned from the challenges of opening a basic science laboratory. Dr. Toth has been a great mentor for me, helping me with multiple aspects of research including writing for journals and grant proposals,” Jang said.

In summer 2017, he was accepted into the UF DMD-PhD program, a combined degree program that is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between the colleges of dentistry and medicine.

The DMD-PhD program at UF, Jang learned, stands out from similar programs at other dental schools for several reasons. The UF program provides generous financial support that includes tuition, living expenses and a stipend. In addition, dual degree students can receive an additional $3,000 per year if their NIH NIDCR F30 grant application is selected for NIDCR funding – something that dual degree students at other universities have pointed to while lobbying for a fellowship bonus at their program.

“I can also choose to work as a tutor and care for patients in the emergency care clinic during academic breaks, allowing me to generate some additional income while strengthening my clinical and teaching skills,” Jang said.

Most importantly, Jang says, the UFCD DMD/PhD program provides very strong training in both the DMD and PhD aspects of my degrees. He said he’s learned that throughout the U.S., UFCD’s clinical curriculum is viewed as one of the strongest, in terms of educational quality, a large patient pool in all dental specialties, and the college’s highly trained, experienced clinical professors.

“Our professors are well-known throughout the country as academic instructors for dental students and for their work in continuing education courses for practicing dentists,” Jang said.

The UF College of Medicine’s Biomedical Science PhD program is also well-known throughout the country for providing high quality PhD training for students seeking to enhance their investigative skills, he said.

“The dental students in the dual degree program work with highly established and well-funded principal investigators not only at UFCD but also at other colleges part of UF Health so we’re able to expand our options and research interests in all health-related fields,” Jang said.

James Jang explains his research poster.During his first three years in dental school, though not required, Jang continued working in Toth’s laboratory and published three abstracts and two papers as a co-first author and a co-author in virology journals. He also wrote a UFCD Student Seed Grant Application that served as a foundation for his current project, “Gene regulatory role of vIRF1 in KSHV infection” and an NIH F30 application for a predoctoral fellowship which he received for his four years of doctoral training and his fourth year of dental school. The NIH funding for the research project began in fall 2022 and Jang is conducting his research with Toth’s research group. In 2021, he received the UFCD High Research Honors Award.

Jang credits both Toth and Bernadett Papp, Ph.D., for being his mentors as he’s navigated through the challenges of being a researcher and the challenges of receiving and managing funding awards.

“James is a dedicated clinician scientist and a passionate advocate for dental research. It’s been a pleasure having him as part of our research team and I look forward to seeing his career progress as he advances science and discovery in our field,” Toth said.

In addition to dental education and dissertation research, he has been actively involved with the AADOCR National Student Research Group. He served as the president, vice president, treasurer, and historian of the UFCD Local Student Research Group, or UF SRG, and he also served as the regional representative, councilor, and currently as the president-elect of the National Student Research Group, or NSRG. Through UF SRG, he strengthened the bridge between UFCD dental students and UF dental research faculty members by organizing multiple lunch and learn, dinner and learn events, and other meetings by working with various departments the college. Currently, while serving as the NSRG president, he is focused on strengthening the network of dual degree students and dental academicians in the United States and Canada by organizing AADOCR/IADR conference sessions, networking events, workshops, research competitions and Zoom Q/A sessions. Through these activities, he aims to encourage dual degree students continue to pursue academic research careers and introduce academic career pathways to current dental students.

Jang expects to graduate in December 2023 or May 2024, and hopes to continue his dental education in a residency program while also pursuing a research postdoctoral fellowship, and establish a niche in the dental, oral and craniofacial research field. Ultimately he wants to go into dental education where he can provide patient care, teach dental students and residents, and run a clinical/translational research laboratory.

Frank Gibson
Frank Gibson III, Ph.D.

UF DMD/PhD Program

The DMD-PhD combined degree program was established in 2012, and designed to train future leaders in academic research to tackle clinical disorders related to oral health. Students learn to apply modern research methods in a multidisciplinary environment. One key aspect to the program is that students undergo their PhD training while working part-time to complete their 4th year of dental school, allowing the student to fully develop and maintain all clinical skills. This structure also allows students to balance simultaneously their research and clinical responsibilities, a critical skill for a successful career in academic research.

For more information about UF’s DMD/PhD program, contact Frank C. Gibson, III, Ph.D.

Other UF combined degree programs

There are numerous opportunities for PhD research training offered through the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences within the UF Academic Health Center. This PhD program consists of eight areas of research concentration: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cancer Biology, Genetics, Immunology and Microbiology, Molecular Cell Biology, Neuroscience, Physiology and Functional Genomics, and Pharmacology and Therapeutics.