David Ojcius

Assistant Dean of Research, University of the Pacific

David Ojcius is a professor and researcher at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, California. He earned a B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1979 and then continued at Berkeley to get his Ph.D. in Biophysics. After two postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard and Rockefeller University, David Ojcius took his skills to France, where he had his first permanent job at the Pasteur Institute, which had received Nobel Prizes in areas related to molecular biology and infections. There, Ojcius studied interactions between human pathogens and host immune systems.

He married in France and stayed there for 13 years, before moving back to America with his wife and children and taking a job at the University of California, Merced, opening up a new campus as founding faculty member. In 2015, David Ojcius joined the Dugoni School of Dentistry at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, chairing the department responsible for delivering most of the science courses in the dental school, including Biochemistry, Physiology and Microbiology.

As a researcher, David Ojcius is passionate about the pursuit of knowledge and the concept of lifelong learning.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

The idea of working in my current field came from my original interest in microorganisms and how they affect the immune system of the host. Previously, I had worked on different pathogens in the body, not those found in the mouth. Most researchers are attracted to fields that are new where there is a lot still to be discovered and the oral microbiome is an area where there is still a lot we don’t know and so much to be learned.

What is known is that people who have preventative dentistry have lower incidents of non-oral disease like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. This is clear, but people don’t know why there is this association. The microbes in the mouth are good candidates for having an effect on the rest of the body. Some of them can cause inflammation and even localized inflammation can have effects throughout the body. The one thing that the government and National Institute of Health that funds research has stated as one of their goals is to learn how to use the mouth to diagnose non-oral disease.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My typical day before COVID-19: after breakfast, I would take public transportation to work and I read on the train. I try not to spend too much time on newspapers; there’s more interesting things to read than that. When I get to work, I reply to emails and begin meetings with professors in my department on our own teaching assignments and research projects. However, I wind up spending more time helping other people than I spend on my own projects. But that’s just part of the job.

Our school is a clinical school. Since the pandemic began, like many schools, we are giving coursework online, but we can’t give clinical courses that way. Our students are going to the school for the clinical courses and to treat patients, but the city of San Francisco will not allow us yet to have classes in person. Since I’m not a clinician, I have been teaching and having meetings using Zoom.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Most of the ideas I have come from motivating people to start research projects or to teach in a certain way. For the research, I organize many meetings in which we discuss articles that are published in journals. We discuss the articles and their ideas and think about ideas for new projects. Journal clubs are where we focus on one published paper and discuss it. We also have seminars which I help to organize and very informal meetings we call Chalk Talks where one person can bring up any idea they want to discuss, like a project they want to finish and are seeking collaborators.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The effect of microorganisms in the mouth. There are hundreds of different kinds of bacteria in the mouth. Understanding the effect that the oral microbiome has on the rest of the body is really taking off.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Just taking a break to walk around the block or take a walk to the park. Getting some physical exercise helps to clear my mind and help me focus.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Knowing what we now know about science and how it has been developing, if I could go back to my younger days, I’d like to learn more about computers and data analysis. Working with big data sets would be helpful.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I think we should recommend in our school that all students and professionals should take a short nap in the afternoon. Alertness drops in the middle of the afternoon for reasons that are unrelated to having eaten lunch and it is independent of weather or culture. People often drink coffee for this reason, but it does not help much to bounce back from the drop. Only a short nap can restore alertness and this could increase productivity for everybody.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I like to have informal meetings with colleagues. In particular, I like “walking” meetings where I meet with a colleague and we have our discussions while walking through a park or on campus. I think this type of meeting can be both enjoyable and productive.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Maintaining networks of collaborators. We used to meet at conferences, though lately we keep in touch through meetings via video conference. Sharing resources and writing articles together has helped keep my research vital and expanding.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Shyness is a failure for someone who has to teach. It felt overwhelming for me to have to speak in public initially, but as with almost anything else, with practice it has become much easier. I didn’t like the idea of having to be in front of the camera for Zoom meetings, for instance, but now I am used to it.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

One of my research areas has nothing at all to do with oral health and dentistry. I have also been a visiting professor in Taiwan for nine years, so when I’ve been traveling there and working in that capacity, our work has been on natural products and their effects on health. In Taiwan, many people practice traditional medicine using plants and mushrooms, things that have been used for health for thousands of years. Almost three-quarters of the drugs we use in Western medicine are originally derived from plants. Even something as commonly used as aspirin came from plants. A lot of natural products which are known to be safe and tested for centuries have beneficial effects on health. I think a lot of these natural things could be used to adapt common products for oral health and they could reach a new market through things like mouthwash and toothpaste. They could improve oral health, but also indirectly improve overall health and since these natural products are known and safe, there doesn’t need to be millions of dollars spent to get FDA approval.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

When I started working from home at short notice due to the pandemic, I realized I didn’t have everything I needed to do my usual work. I write a lot of articles with a lot of references and citations, so to have to do all of this manually it would take up a lot of time. It was about $100 for a license for a program called EndNote, which easily manages references so I can insert them into Word files.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

A website we use a lot is PubMed. It’s a free resource site that makes it easy to find articles by author and topic.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Factfulness by Hans Rosling. The title is a play on the word “mindfulness,” which means being present in your mind as you perceive reality around you. The book goes into how you have to keep facts in perspective. One of the claims in the book, which is supported well by evidence, is that we tend to focus on negative news and we don’t remember all the things that are improving over the long term. For instance, lifespan has been increasing steadily over the last few centuries, more children are being educated at school and land devoted to public parks is increasing. There are a lot of good things that are happening in the world, but all it takes is one really negative story and we tend to forget that. Factfulness helps bring about a different, more optimistic perspective on life.

What is your favorite quote?

This is a quote from a poem by Spanish poet, Antonio Machado:
“Traveler, your footprints are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road; You make your own path as you walk.”

Key Learnings:

• Although they have been separate professions and disciplines, dentistry is now converging with medicine. There is a growing awareness that oral health affects systemic health. Dentists are in a good position to diagnose the early signs of non-oral diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

• The oral microbiome, the community of microbes in the mouth, harbors hundreds of different species of bacteria and microbes. Little is known about these microbes, but they can influence our risk for developing diabetes, dementia, and other non-oral diseases, so we are working on increasing our knowledge in this important area.

• Inflammation is needed to prevent infection, but too much inflammation causes damage. Gum disease, or periodontal disease, is the most common inflammatory disease in humans. How inflammation is triggered by microbes is an active and very interesting area of research.