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Pathways: Moya Meredith Smith

Can you tell us a little about your career and the path you took to your present role at FoDOCS? 

I suppose the key to my career was to be intensely interested in other people’s research activities, but serendipity took the reins. As a zoology undergraduate I had no career plan laid down but had talked often to a dental research colleague looking at growth of jaws and teeth. He approached me with a vacant research job, working for the Professor of Histology and Pathology at the London Hospital Dental School. The next day I had the job and it led to both a PhD and publications, the first one in Nature so a good start.

Time to begin a family so after 6 years at LHDS I left, but while my first child arrived I fitted in writing up more papers, when I was phoned from a clinical colleague who asked: ‘Would I like a job?’ - one-day-a-week teaching Special Dental Anatomy at King’s. It was a perfect restart so I said yes, learnt all the fundamentals of the preclinical course, new to me, easy journey from our new home in South-West London to the Strand Building. A second son arrived in the Christmas holidays and I had time to get a paper published from a second research topic from material at King’s. So much for maternity leave, it wasn’t around then in the 1960’s, but this was a ‘toe in the door’, insurance if I wanted to get back into research later on.

A fulltime job arrived just as my sons were 5 and 3, when I saw an ad which seemed tailor-made for me at the Royal Dental Hospital, as a research lectureship in preclinical sciences. I was stunned to find a panel of 14 men along the table ready to interview me, but I got the offer and managed to start after we found a suitable child carer to live with us. In those days no convenient, childcare nurseries as there are now. My salary paid for all my costs, so I broke even, a sort of insurance policy for jobs later as I was not sure that I had a future in Dentistry without a clinical qualification.

That was the last and only interview I ever had as the rest of my positions were academic political moves, from closures and mergers. I made it though, in a heavily populated male, clinical environment, to be given a chair as Professor of Evolution and Development of Dentoskeletal Tissues, the first female non-clinical dental one in the UK. By then I was in Guy’s Dental School as I had been moved from Anatomy, then part of the Medical School, a financial balancing act by UMDS as it was then. Strange that now I am part of King’s again, after my first venture into teaching Special Dental Anatomy, and I was deeply moved by the award in 2019 of ‘Lifetime Achievement’ for Teaching and Research as given to me by the Principal of King’s. Now Emeritus Professor, I am still at here after retirement for the fourth time, research active but no longer teaching. 

What, if any, challenges did you encounter along the way, and how did you navigate them? 

Once I moved to the Dental School and CFD, the Head of Department would not support adding any of the staff to a teaching role, bearing in mind two of my teaching colleagues in Anatomy had not come across to CFD. This left me with a very heavy teaching role and research became very difficult for me, so I decided not to run a new lab, nor apply for grants to get staff, this was also difficult with a growing family, so I put research on the back burner.

Two ways to navigate; one was for getting research done, instead I continued with collaborations in palaeontology at the NHM, and elsewhere in Geology at Birmingham, with very successful grants and equipment that I put into the Birmingham lab and was successful with many publications with my geology colleagues. Much of this work accounted for my award of the Lapworth Medal at the end of 2022.

Second way for teaching; sought help with some of the lectures, I made a plan to integrate my clinical colleagues in the sequence of lectures covering the whole of the second-year course in Special Dental Anatomy, all the subjects important to understanding clinical relevance from basic biology. Each topic was a pair of lectures, I gave the first one on the tissue structure and its development, e.g. enamel, dentine, pulp, periodontal ligament, oral mucosa; the clinical lecture followed.

All my colleagues were very supportive and agreed to give their lecture, so this made an excellent integration with clinical studies and motivated the students. In fact, some of the clinicians I persuaded to teach on the course are still giving them, even if retired.

If you could, what advice would you give your younger self at the start of your career? 

None. Such a different era from now, much more institutional help, non-existent before, so I cannot compare, nor make suggestions as they would not apply to now.

Today, be open talk around, be enthusiastic and look for, or create opportunities.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Embrace Equity’. What does equity mean to you, and how can everyone (regardless of gender) embrace it? 

Be fair to people encourage them in their career both research and teaching, informal talk to all and listen. Annual reviews allow for formal assessment and a good neutral occasion to find out what they want to do and hear their difficulties and ambitions.