Thailand and The UAB School of Public Health

Thailand and The UAB School of Public Health

Jeffrey Roseman, MD, PhD, MPH


In order to understand the relationship between Thailand and the UAB School of Public Health, one needs to go back to the first dean of the UAB School of Dentistry, first president of UAB, and first chancellor of the University of Alabama System, Dr. Joseph Francis Volker.  Born in New Jersey in 1913, Dr. Volker received a DDS from Indiana University when he was only 24 years old. He then went on to obtain an AB, MS and PhD in biochemistry from the University of Rochester on a Carnegie grant in 1940.  He did seminal research on prevention of dental caries by using fluoride.


After graduating he went to Tufts College Dental School as Professor of Clinical Dentistry, where he became dean at the young age of 32 in 1947.  Shortly thereafter, Tufts was visited by two dentists from Alabama who saw in Dr. Volker the ideal person to lead the new dental school that they had envisioned for Alabama.  So, in 1948, after being given assurances by both the president of the University of Alabama and the dean of their two-year medical school of complete control, Dr. Volker decided to devote all his time to the new dental school in Alabama.


Volker designed, constructed, and equipped the dental school building and selected and hired the faculty.  It was his goal, which he ultimately achieved, to have the dental students receive their basic sciences along with the medical students using the same faculty, classrooms, and laboratories. One of the faculty he attracted from Tufts was Dr. Charles McCallum who followed him as Dean of the School of Dentistry and later became President of UAB.


In 1951, at the request of the U.S. State Department Volker spent three months in Thailand as part of an education program as a Teaching Specialist. The dental programs in Thailand had been seriously set back by the Second World War. This trip to Thailand was to be the first of many for him. While he was there, he began the research which lead to a report he wrote with two Thai colleagues in 1956 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


They studied the prevalence of caries in school children in both Bangkok and the north of Thailand, including the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai and the Hill Tribes.

They hypothesized that the high caries rate in Bangkok was due to their high sugar diet while the lower caries rate in the north reflected the high fluoride content of the water.  Because of his work, Dr. Volker received the medal of Commander of the Crown of Thailand at the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington. In 1967, he received an honorary Doctor of Science in Dentistry directly from his majesty, the King of Thailan, in Bangkok.


After successfully developing the School of Dentistry in 1969, Dr. Volker became the first president of UAB. In 1976 he became the first chancellor of the three-campus University of Alabama Health System, a post he held until 1982.  From then until his death in 1989 he served as a distinguished professor of UAB. He often talked highly of the people and the opportunities in Thailand.

One of those people he spoke glowingly of whom he met in Thailand was Dr. Juan Navia, a young researcher he recruited to UAB.  Dr. Navia did research on nutrition and dental disease. Dr. William Bridgers (Bill), Dean of the School of Public Health at that time, convinced the U.S. Congress to appropriate funds in 1987 to honor Senator John Sparkman by establishing a center at the School to conduct international public health education. Dr. Navia was selected to be the first director of the new John J. Sparkman Center for International Public Health Education (SCIPHE).

Under Dr. Navia’s leadership the Sparkman Center sponsored an MPH program in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Dr. Navia and Heustis (Penny) Whiteside, Jr., Assistant Director of SCIPHE-UAB, first traveled to Chiang Mai in 1983. While there they met with Dr. Thawaron Anumanrajadhon of the Intercountry Centre for Oral Health (ICHO) and Dr. Sampan Srisuwan, Dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at the Chiang Mai University (CMU).

From 1984-1988 Dr. Yupin Songpaison, Senior Dental Officer of ICHO, Dr. Sampan, Penny and a representative of WHO met regularly in Thailand and Birmingham to further develop the MPH program. Dr.Patcharwana Srisilapanan served as secretary for the group.  Dr. Uthiawan Kamchanakamol, Chairman of the Community Dentistry Department at CMU was selected as supervisor of the program. [He later came to UAB and obtained an MPH.]

On September 23, 1987, Dr., Volker, Dr. Navia, Penny, Dr. Ranney (then dean of the UAB School of Dentistry) and Dr. McCallum (then president of UAB) attended the inauguration ceremony of the program. The program started in October, 1987. Twenty dentists from Thailand (16), Sri Lanka (2), Japan (1) and the Peoples Republic of China (1) were admitted.

Over the year of the program, faculty from the School of Public Health went to CMU for approximately one month each to give lectures and exams in their specialty. In September, 1988, Dr. McCallum went with Dr. Ken Roozen, Dean of the UAB Graduate School, and Drs. Bridgers and Navia and Penny to Thailand for the graduation.

Dr. Volker died in 1989.  His portrait with the inscription, “Father of Modern Thai Dentistry”, was unveiled at Chulalongkom University in Bangkok in 1990.

Shortly after graduating, four of the students, Ananda Dasanayake,  Yihong Li, Komkham Pattanaporn, and Chandrika Piyatalake came to UAB to pursue their doctoral education. They have all gone on to enjoy successful careers.

Dr. Ananda Dasanayake, after spending more than seven years at the UAB School of Dentistry as an assistant and then tenured associate professor, is now professor of epidemiology and health promotion at the New York University College of Dentistry.  He also holds appointments in the Department of Epidemiology of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health as an Associate, in New York University School of Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center as a Member, in University of Khon Kaen School of Dentistry in Thailand as a Visiting International Scholar, and in Joint Colleges of Medicine, Oral Health, and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Technology in Jamaica as an Adjunct Professor.  He is also an Advisor to the Unit for Research and International Affairs at the Faculty of Dental Sciences in University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a Consultant to the Caribbean Health Initiative.  He is a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology.  He was a 1994 co-recipient of the IADR/AADR William J. Gies Award. His MPH project was “Oral health status of the pregnant mother and low birth weight of the newborn.” His doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Epidemiology of mutans streptococci: Validity of detection, prevalence and its association with the use of antibiotics among African American children, and the maternal transmission.”

His research interests include the epidemiology of dental caries, prevention of transmission of mutans streptococci from mother to infant, dental health services utilization by minorities, oral cancer epidemiology, and perinatal periodontal health and poor pregnancy outcomes. He also has an interest in the barriers in meeting Healthy People 2020 objectives in relation to dental sealants.

Dr. Yihong Li received a DrPH in International Public Health. She did her post-doctoral training in molecular epidemiology at UAB and then joined the faculty in the Department of Oral Biology in the School of Dentistry. Currently, she is Professor in the Department of Basic Science and Craniofacial Biology, New York University College of Dentistry. Her MPH project was “The relationship between smoking exposure and periodontal status: A case control study in a Chiang Mai population aged 35-44.” Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Influence on Dental Caries of Malnutrition, Enamel Hypoplasia, and Colonization of mutans streptococci in Rural Chinese Children 3 to 5 Years Old.”

She received the Dedicated Service Award from The John J. Sparkman Center for International Public Health Education in 1993 and is a member of the Upsilon Chapter of Delta Omega Honorary Public Health Society. Her research has focused on characterizing the oral microbiota associated with dental caries. She has continuously worked with CMU faculty on various research projects and published four papers with them in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Komkham Pattanaporn graduated from Chiang Mai University, Thailand. Her MPH project was “The ability of the subdistrict health worker in Chiang Mai to detect dental caries in teeth indicated for extraction and unerupted teeth.” Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, "Relationship of Dental Calculus to Caries, Gingivitis, and Selected Salivary Factors in 11- to 13-Year-Old Children in Chiang Mai, Thailand." After receiving her DrPH from UAB in 1994, she returned to teach in the Faculty of Dentistry, Chiang Mai University until 2008. She was a former head of Community Dentistry Department and had been the editor-in-chief of Chiang Mai Dental Journal for over 10 years. She received a Diploma of Dental Public Health from The Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Thailand in 2002.

Dr. Pattanaporn emigrated to Canada in 2008 and has joined the Faculty of Dentistry, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver until now. She was first appointed as a clinical assistant professor and was promoted to a clinical associate professor in 2014. She received UBC Faculty Certificate on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in 2012 and a part-time faculty teaching award in 2014.

Her area of interest is caries risk assessment and oral health promotion. She has collaborated with her classmate, Dr. Yihong Li, on a research project of mode of delivery related to early childhood caries have published articles together.

Dr. Chandrika Piyathilake is a tenured Professor of the Department of Nutrition Sciences and the Director of the Molecular Epidemiology Laboratory at UAB.  She is also a Scientist in the UAB’s NIH-funded Clinical Nutrition Research Center, Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Minority Health Research Center. Her MPH project was “The relationship between the severity of dental fluorosis and chronic nutritional status.” Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Folate and Vitamin B-12 status and Chromosomal Damage in the Buccal Mucosa of Smokers and Nonsmokers.” Her post-doctoral training and preventive oncology academic award (K07) was focused on diet and cancer prevention with a special interest in nutrient-related intermediate endpoint biomarkers of cancer.

Her research goals are to systematically develop promising dietary interventions for prevention of cancer and other diet-related diseases while understanding the underlying molecular mechanisms of action and discovery of biomarkers for early detection of cancer. She has taken a systematic approach to address the importance of nutritional factors for cancer prevention and control and have demonstrated that methyl donor micronutrients as well as overall dietary patterns derived by factor analysis are associated with cancer-protective levels of DNA methylation in repetitive elements. This work has been instrumental for advancing this area of research toward scientifically sound and biomarker based dietary interventions for prevention and control of cancer, especially cervical cancer, caused by exposure to high risk-human papillomaviruses.



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