BUIES CREEK - Upon hearing she had her first cavity, Bethany Starnes did what any good chemistry major would do … she began to research.
The then-undergraduate biochemistry and chemistry major at Campbell University thought perhaps something was different about Harnett County’s drinking water since the Granite Falls native had never had dental problems before leaving for college.
With the help of faculty advisor Dr. Lin Coker, Starnes molded her curiosity into a detailed study on not only the water in her new county, but whether or not its fluoride levels and the local school district’s fluoride rinse program was having an effect on students’ dental health. The study was one of 32 entries from 17 different North Carolina colleges and universities published in the 2011 edition of Explorations, an annual journal of undergraduate research in the Tar Heel state.
The cavity may have been bad news, but getting published was a big positive for Starnes, who graduated from Campbell last May.
“When I got the email saying they had accepted my paper and wanted revisions, I was jumping up and down,” said Starnes, who is currently looking for her first job in the chemistry field. “It’s a big thing … not many undergraduates do this kind of research or get it published. I hope it gives me an edge.”
Coker said Starnes is the first student in Campbell’s chemistry department to have a research article published as an undergraduate.
“We already had the equipment needed, and after helping her come up with a research outline, I just guided her whenever she needed it,” Coker said. “Bethany came up with many good ideas on her own. She needed less supervision than normal for a research student.”
For her research, Starnes surveyed elementary and high school students in Harnett County about their oral hygiene and their participation in the school system’s fluoride rinse program, a program that costs the state roughly $376,805 a year (or $5 per student). She also studied economic trends and factored in Harnett County’s below-average access to dental care.
She found that the fluoride levels in Harnett’s drinking water, while on par with recommended guidelines, did not have an impact - positive or negative - on cavity levels. More surprisingly, neither did the school system’s rinse program, a finding she said has garnered attention from public officials.
“As it turned out, in talking to some teachers, I found it’s really difficult to administer the (rinse) program,” Starnes said. “The students have lunch and snacks, and it’s tough to find a time when they haven’t eaten recently (which the program needs). These things that cost the county money - the rinse program and water fluorination - they were statistically insignificant.”
She did conclude that informing parents, educators and students about the effects their diet and dental hygiene habits have on their dental health is the key factor in cavity prevention.
In other words, Starnes had nobody to blame but herself for her own cavity.
Starnes is the daughter of Phyllis and Lee Starnes of Granite Falls. Explorations is published once a year and is released as a companion to the State of N.C. Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium held each November.
- By Billy Liggett, Assistant Director for Publications