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U professor named to NIH position

D’Souza will oversee the institute’s basic, translational, and clinical research to advance the nation’s oral health.

Rena N. D’Souza, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., has been selected by Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, to lead the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) as its ninth director.

In her new role, expected to begin later this year, D’Souza will oversee the institute’s basic, translational, and clinical research to advance the nation’s oral health in areas of oral cancer, orofacial pain, tooth decay, periodontal disease, salivary gland dysfunction, craniofacial development and disorders, and the oral complications of systemic diseases. She will also manage the institute’s annual budget of more than $475 million, which primarily supports research grants and training awards for scientists at various stages of their careers, from high school students to independent scientists.

“Since its inception in 1948, the Institute has catalyzed scientific advances that have increased our understanding of the basic biological mechanisms of diseases and disorders and the application of such knowledge to improve oral health and the practice of dentistry,” D’Souza said. “This has given new meaning to oral health and its integral role in overall health across the life span.  It is with a deep sense of calling that I accept the enormous privilege and responsibility to lead NIDCR into a new era of success. I cherish the experiences and the life-long friendships that I formed at the University of Utah as together, they have prepared me for this position. ‘’

D’Souza is currently the assistant vice president for academic affairs and education for health sciences at the University of Utah. She also serves as a professor of dentistry, the Ole and Marty Jensen Chair of the School of Dentistry, and professor of neurobiology, anatomy, pathology, and surgery in the School of Medicine and the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“Dr. D’Souza provided remarkable leadership as we launched our School of Dentistry and we are deeply grateful to her,” said University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins. “She is a highly regarded researcher who has made groundbreaking discoveries in oral health. We are sad to lose Dr. D’Souza, but we are thrilled she has the opportunity to lead and share her expertise in this important national role.”

D’Souza has been a principal investigator on multiple NIH and other federal grants since 1987 and has published 140 peer-reviewed journal papers and book chapters. Her research focuses on developmental biology and genetics; matrix biology; biomaterials, tissue engineering, and stem cells; and clinical research. Her group’s discovery that a novel mutation in PAX9 was responsible for the failure of teeth to develop opened a new field of research to discover genes and mutations as well as therapies for common human inherited disorders of the craniofacial complex.

“Dr. D’Souza is an excellent biomedical scientist and investigator, and well-respected leader,” says Willard Dere, M.D., professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine and associate vice president for research for U of U Health. “She has a warm and engaging personality, and she will be greatly missed. Her commitment to inclusion, equity, diversity, and social justice has established her as a respected leader amongst her colleagues. I deeply appreciate her contributions to our graduate education and training programs, along with her influence as a scientist, mentor, and senior leader.”

D’Souza was the inaugural dean of the School of Dentistry at the University of Utah, which was established in 2012. She is currently the elected chair in Dentistry and Oral Health Sciences Section and elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also served as former president of the American Association for Dental Research and the International Association for Dental Research; a fellow of the American College of Dentists; and the recipient of the 2017 American Association for Dental Research Irwin D. Mandel Distinguished Mentoring Award. D’Souza served on the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director in 2013-14 and on NIH study sections. She is a devoted mentor and champion of diversity in the biomedical research workforce.

D’Souza received a bachelor’s degree in dental surgery from the University of Bombay, India, after which she completed a general practice residency. She earned a D.D.S., Ph.D., and master’s degree in pathology/biomedical sciences from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

NIDCR is the nation’s leading funder of research on oral, dental, and craniofacial health. NIDR followed the creation  of the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart Institute.

To learn more about NIDCR, visit