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Dr. Athena S. Papas

Dr Athena Papas

Age: 72
City: Boston
Affiliation: Oral Medicine Division, Department of Diagnostic Sciences, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine
Specialty: Oral medicine, dentistry
Education: DMD, Harvard University School of Dental Medicine; Ph.D. in oral biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

THROUGHOUT HER career as an oral-health crusader (including as a strong advocate for AIDS patients at the height of the epidemic); as an expert in Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune saliva disorder; and as head of the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine’s oral-medicine division, Dr. Athena S. Papas has racked up so many laurels that you could be forgiven for thinking the Industry Icon award might be nothing more than just a paperweight to her.

Not so. “It means a lot to be recognized as a woman,” Dr. Papas says. With nine dentists in her immediate family, and having grown up surrounded by the dentist friends of her dentist mother, “I had no clue as a child that women were not supposed to be dentists. When I applied to dental school, [that] was the first time I realized there were no women in dentistry.”

Initially, Harvard wouldn’t even send her an application. She was admitted to Tufts, but “chickened out” because she would have been her class’s only female student. She chose instead to go to MIT, where she completed her Ph.D. in isolating the enamel proteins that control mineralization—her first foray into the study of saliva. Her work and grades caught Harvard’s attention, and this time it asked her to apply.

“I said, ‘But you don’t accept women,’ and they said, ‘Well, we’re trying,’ ” Dr. Papas recalls with a mordant laugh. “I said, ‘I won’t go alone.’ ” So Harvard admitted two women to its class of 1974, the first since World War II: Dr. Papas and Dolores Mercedes Franklin, an African-American.

After graduating, Dr. Papas took a job at Tufts, where she’s been ever since. There she has written a textbook on aging and developed programs for the elderly. In the 1980s, when AIDS ran rampant, she was a pioneer in treating Kaposi sarcoma—tumors that formed inside patients’ mouths. Upon its establishment in 1988, she was named the first dental director of the New England AIDS Education and Training Center in Boston, through which she taught dentists across the area how to control infection. Tufts, meanwhile, received a significant grant from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which enabled her to continue her vital efforts on Sjögren’s, cancer and more.

Indeed, her work since has focused on pro­viding new treatments for Sjögren’s and other conditions that cause dry mouth. She has received more than $24 million in grant money to further her work; her benefactors include the National Institutes of Health and the federal Department of Agriculture.

Access to crucial outside money is a cutthroat competition, Dr. Papas observes, but she offers this advice: “Get your education, get your credentials, start small, show that you can produce,” she says. “Then you can work your way up.” Solid advice regarding grants, one’s profession and even life itself, given by a woman who from the start forged her own path when none existed.

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