Curriculum Guidelines for the Development of Graduate Programs in Oral Biology

Curriculum Guidelines for the Development of Graduate Programs in Oral Biology

Reprinted from: Journal of Dental Education 50:8 (1986)

The following guidelines are the result of efforts by the Section on Oral Biology within the American Association of Dental Schools. They were developed and reviewed by the Council of Sections Administrative Board and the Executive Committee.

Although the guidelines are recommendations only, their use as program development aids is suggested by official Association policy. Any questions on these guidelines may be addressed to the Executive Director or the chairman of the Section on Oral Biology.

These guidelines have been developed for use by educational institutions as program development aids. They are not official policy statements of the AADS and should not be construed as recommendations for restrictive requirements.

The program guidelines committee of the Section on Oral Biology consisted of the following:

Dr. Israel Kleinberg, State University of New York at Stony Brook (Co-chairman)
Dr. Richard Suddick, University of Texas at San Antonio (Co-chairman)
Dr. Solon E. Ellison, Columbia University
Dr. Don Strachan, University of Michigan
Dr. Murray Robinovitch, University of Washington

I. Introduction
A. Definition of Oral Biology
Oral biology is that area of knowledge that deals with the structure, development, and function of the oral tissues; their interrelationships; and their relation to other organ systems in both health and disease.

B. Objectives of an Oral Biology Graduate Program
Objectives include:

  1. training oral biology teachers and researchers to staff dental schools and other units of health science centers and universities interested in oral or orally related fields;
  2. providing relevant basic science and research training for dentists taking specialty or other advanced training in one or more of the clinical disciplines;
  3. training researchers for government and privately sponsored dental research institutes and for industrial laboratories and institutions engaged in applied oral science research.

C. Need for Oral Biology Graduate Programs
The rapid emergence of oral biology as a discipline during the last two decades has occurred because of the compelling need for (a) biological science teaching related to dentistry; (b) research programs that lead to a better understanding of oral biological systems; and (c) discovery of new and improved methods for diagnosing, preventing, and controlling oral disease. By providing a focus for the traditional basic health sciences, oral biology has laid a foundation for the further development and expansion of the knowledge base upon which the clinical subjects of the dental curriculum and dental practice necessarily rest.

D. Definition of Key Words and Phrases
The Council on Dental Education of the ADA has adopted the following definitions related to graduate study in oral biology:

Program: "A program is a planned sequence of courses designed to provide the educational experience and training required for the acquisition of an advanced degree. A program does not have the same meaning as a course." For example, a number of courses such as anatomy, oral pathology, physiology, and others may be included in a graduate program leading to a Master of Science degree, or courses by these titles might be included in a postgraduate program and lead to a certificate of proficiency.

Graduate Programs: These are programs of study in a university graduate school. They may be carried on jointly with advanced training in clinical specialties and should provide the advanced student with greater depth of knowledge in specific areas of science and research methodology.

A thesis based on original research should be required to complete the graduate program. An academic degree such as Master of Science (M . S. ) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is awarded in recognition of the candidate's level of achievement. On completion of graduate programs in oral biology, candidates should be well prepared for careers in teaching and research.

Postgraduate Programs: Postgraduate programs in various clinical disciplines including a general practice residency can be established in conjunction with graduate programs in oral biology. Clinical training can be provided by colleges of dentistry, hospitals, and medical schools. These clinical programs provide advanced study to dentists seeking special knowledge and skills in clinical disciplines. A candidate is awarded a certificate upon satisfactory completion of the postgraduate portion of the program.

II. Interrelationships
Oral biology by its nature interrelates with all the clinical disciplines of dentistry; the exact character of the relationship varies from one discipline to another. At the same time, there is a close relationship between oral biology and the traditional basic health sciences of anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, microbiology, pathology, and pharmacology. Oral biology builds on these disciplines and integrates and applies them in varying degrees to the study of oral and orally related problems. As a consequence, the oral biologist is the one best suited to act as a "bridge" of knowledge and expertise between the basic health sciences and the clinical science disciplines within dental schools.

III. Overview
The curriculum for most graduate programs within a university consists of didactic and research components. The didactic portion for advanced training in oral biology should include instruction that provides first for an overall coverage of oral biology as generally described by the topics outlined in the AADS oral biology guidelines. The program of instruction also should provide advanced course offerings both within and outside the field of oral biology that meet the specific goals of the candidate and fit within the framework of the overall oral biology program. The research portion should provide the exposure and experience necessary for development of the critical thinking and laboratory and experimental skills that are fundamental to the exploration of new ideas and the development of new areas of knowledge. Much greater depth in both the didactic and research components of the curriculum differentiates the Ph.D. from the M.S. programs in oral biology.

IV. Primary Educational Objectives
Upon completion of the program the successful graduate student should be able to accomplish several of the following:

  1. Demonstrate competence in at least one of the main areas within oral biology and as a result be able to function as an authoritative resource within academic, government, and industrial institutions.
  2. Conduct research aimed at increasing the knowledge and improving the use of oral biology concepts and techniques in dentistry and other areas of health science.
  3. Conduct research leading to development by industry of products that will improve dental and general health for use in the dental office and by the consumer.
  4. Demonstrate above average knowledge of the overall field of oral biology in order to serve as a consultant, expert witness, or in a similar role within the domain of the oral biologist.
  5. Teach undergraduate students, auxiliaries, and other technical staff the principles of oral biology, imparting a thorough understanding of its essence and relation to the various dental and health sciences.
  6. Teach research methodology and diagnostic techniques developed by research to undergraduate dental students, auxiliaries, and other technical staff. These include principles and operation of laboratory instrumentation and procedures used to obtain new information in the areas of oral biology, and how they relate to clinical diagnosis and treatment.
  7. Perform specialized laboratory techniques in support of clinical investigations.

V. Prerequisites
The applicant for advanced training in oral biology should have an adequate background in the physical and biological sciences. Oral biology training initiated prior to graduation from dental school is acceptable if it is conducted at the graduate level. This training may be credited to or given in a program leading to a doctorate or Master of Science degree.

It would be desirable for the applicant to have a background in a core program in oral biology as set out in the AADS oral biology guidelines; otherwise, this should be part of the graduate oral biology course work.

The applicant's academic standing should meet minimum requirements for acceptance into the graduate school of the university. Transcripts and letters of reference should be required. GRE scores, undergraduate and other college records, and interviews are recommended. Applicants whose native language is not English should be required to submit scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

VI. Degrees Awarded
The oral biology program should be in a position to offer graduate programs leading to the M.S. and/or Ph.D. degrees. The M.S. program should generally be of two to three years' duration and should be used primarily for dental graduates who wish to obtain additional basic science training before or concurrent with training in a clinical specialty. The Ph.D. program should generally be of four years' duration and be designed for, in addition to dental graduates, those with suitable backgrounds in biological science, including graduates in medicine. Ph.D. programs in oral biology combined with D.D.S. or D.M.D., M.D., or clinical specialties should be encouraged.

Faculty involved in an oral biology graduate program should have a broad range of research interests and diverse backgrounds in order to be able to change emphasis with changing conditions and provide students with a wide range of opportunities.

VII. Core Content Outline

  1. Courses: Subject content in the basic dental sciences will vary according to the institution's philosophy and available teaching resources. However, institutions should adhere to the fundamental principles upon which the graduate program is structured. In addition to a core course as set out in the AADS oral biology guidelines, advanced courses in oral biology could include courses such as the following:
    • Biology of Oral Mineralized Tissues: This course deals with the basic chemistry, crystallography, ultrastructure, and metabolism of the calcium phosphates involved in the formation and physiological and pathological resorption of the various mineralized tissues found in or associated with the oral cavity (enamel, dentin, cementum, bone).
    • Salivary Metabolism and Secretion: Consideration is given to the molecular biology of salivary gland regulation, composition, and function. In addition, the use of saliva as a diagnostic tool (sialochemistry) should receive attention.
    • Oral Microbial Systems: Consideration is given to the structure, composition, metabolism, and environmental relationships of the bacterial systems formed on and in association with the oral hard and soft tissues. Specific and mixed bacterial populations and their role in oral disease are discussed, as are the interactions of the oral microflora with specific and nonspecific components of host immunity.
    • Molecular Biology and Pathology of the Periodontium: This course deals with the ultrastructure and biomedical composition of the periodontal tissues, microbial interrelations with the organic and inorganic components of the periodontal tissues, biochemical dynamics of gingival inflammation and wound healing, and metabolic processes responsible for the composition and flow of gingival crevicular fluid.
    • Epithelial Keratinization and Differentiation: Consideration is given to the role of stabilization of gene expression in the development and maturation of mammalian cells and tissues. Differentiation in skin, oral mucosa, and various connective tissues is considered in detail. There is discussion of alterations in the differentiative process of these tissues that may result in pathological disorders.
    • Molecular Basis of the Morphogenesis and Pathogenesis of the Oral and Related Tissues: This course deals with the basic mechanisms involved in differentiation, growth and development, and tumor formation as they relate to the biology and pathology of the oral apparatus. This should include tooth development, areas of pulpal biology, and molecular aspects of the effects of aging upon oral tissues and structures.
    • Oral Sensory Biology: Basic principles of sensory reception are reviewed, developed, and used as a basis for examining receptor biology in the oral cavity. Pertinent aspects of neuromuscular coordination are also covered.
    • Statistical Methods in Oral Biology: This course covers statistical methods that find frequent application in oral science. Emphasis is on statistical concepts, design of experiments, analysis of variance and regression models, and multivariate methods.
    • Pharmacology: Pertinent aspects of basic pharmacology are correlated with drug therapy for oral conditions and for those that affect the oral apparatus. The various drugs that affect the oral tissues, especially salivary function and flow, are considered. Consideration is also given to drug interactions and therapy in dental patients with medical problems.
    • Research Technology: This course covers the latest techniques applicable in state-of-the-art research. It could include lectures and demonstrations of DNA technologies, genetic engineering, hybridoma technology, monoclonal antibodies, ELISA and fluorescent activated cell sorters.
    • Cephalofacial Growth and Development: This course deals with the interactive growth, maturational, and aging processes of the tissues systems within the cephalofacial complex. In this context, the specifics of facial form, oral functions, and variations in occlusal disharmonies are discussed.
    These are but a few examples of the many oral biology advanced course offerings possible if faculty are available. Such courses, along with course offerings in the biological and health sciences and in other academic units of a university, should broaden the students' backgrounds and increase their capacity to analyze critical concepts of new and old knowledge. These should also aid in development of specific interests and stimulate a desire for inquiry. Student interest and area of research investigation together with the availability of teachers should be the determining factors in course selection. Courses should be presented formally or through seminars, conferences, and reading assignments.
  2. Research: Development of research capability is an integral part of the oral biologist's training. Acquiring expertise in the development of research techniques and methodology is an important part of any research program. Such activities introduce the student to critical thinking, accurate reporting, and formulation of conclusions based on data rather than opinion. Research activities may be in the laboratory and be based on in vivo or in vitro models. The same principles of research apply equally to research on human subjects in clinical dentistry; consequently, clinical research is a suitable area of investigation for the oral biology trainee. The research portions of the program may be categorized as:

    Graduate Research. Research undertaken with the supervision of a faculty member to provide exposure to different areas of investigation. The purpose of this research is to assist the student in selecting the research area of his or her dissertation or in doing research on the topic, once it has been chosen. Graduate research is carried out prior to the advancement to candidacy examination.

    Thesis Research. Original investigation undertaken with the supervision of a faculty member; it may be done after the advancement to candidacy examination has been successfully completed.

VIII. Sequencing
Sequencing of courses, laboratories, and research will depend partly on the curricular structure of an institution, the availability of faculty for teaching or supervision, and the individual interests of candidates for whom variables within the program are being tailored.

The structure of graduate programs may vary greatly from one institution to another. Some institutions may choose to concentrate initially on didactic components with little or virtually no research activities. As the program progresses, the didactic components lessen, with progressively more involvement in research. Other programs may offer a different balance of didactics and research during various stages of the program, but achieve the same overall goal. It is the responsibility of the program director to overcome any sequencing difficulties or obstacles in order to ensure that the overall goals of the program are being met.

In general, basic and clinical sciences fundamental to understanding advanced aspects of oral biology should precede the advanced courses. Prior to beginning a research endeavor, some background on research methodology and design, statistics, and specific laboratory skills should be left to the discretion of the program director to allow the director to work within the capabilities, limitations, and policies of the particular institution.

IX. Faculty
A well-qualified faculty is the primary requisite for an acceptable graduate training program in oral biology. A major portion of the training must be under the supervision of faculty who have had advanced training in oral biology or who, through their own efforts, have achieved advanced knowledge and skills in the discipline.

Institutions offering graduate programs in oral biology must provide staff support that is sufficient to provide broad exposure for the trainee.

The faculty should include individuals who have demonstrated ability to carry out research on problems related to oral biology. Optimally, staff should be selected on the basis of ability to arouse student curiosity and imagination, and to guide the development of critical judgment. There must be a sufficient number of faculty and support personnel to ensure a guided experience and close supervision.


  1. Curricular guidelines for oral biology. J Dent Educ 1984;48(5):269.
  2. Curriculum guidelines for postdoctoral oral diagnosis/oral medicine. J Dent Educ 1985;49(4):251.
  3. Curricular guidelines in postdoctoral oral radiology. J Dent Educ 1984;48(3):171.

Editor's Note : The Section on Oral Biology also considered the administration and operation of an oral biology program and included recommendations pertaining to such matters as student selection, student advisory committees, course requirements, advancement to candidacy examinations, research and dissertation requirements, financial aid, facilities, and an economic forecast. This material is contained in an addendum and is available on request from the secretary of the Section on Oral Biology or the AADS Central Office.