Dr. Maria Emanuel Ryan’s patient lies back in the dental chair, looking relaxed, as Ryan examines her teeth. Oldies music plays in the background. The two women chat comfortably, their talk shifting between the dental treatment of scaling, a form of deep cleaning, and the everyday happenings in both their lives. When it is the patient’s turn to speak, Ryan removes the instruments from her mouth. It is the type of experience a person might expect to have with her hairdresser, not her dentist. But then, Ryan is more than a dentist.
Ryan treats patients with periodontal disease at the Stony Brook dental clinic, is a tenured full professor in the School of Dental Medicine, serves as the dental school’s associate dean for strategic planning and external affairs, is on the medical staff at Stony Brook University Medical Center and serves on several advisory boards, such as Colgate-Palmolive Company. Her most important contribution to science, her colleagues say, is her research on oral health and its link to chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
“She is the new dentist who can chew gum and walk at the same time,” said Dr. Lorne Golub, a distinguished professor who is Ryan’s colleague in the Department of Oral Biology and Pathology. Golub is also one of Ryan’s mentors. Her interest starts at the basic level with the patient Golub said, then extends to the University, the broader science community, and lastly to the issues of global health said Golub.
Ryan, 48, lives in Laurel Hollow with her husband Charles Ryan, and their 6-year-old son. She welcomes visitors and people who need her attention. She appears calm and unhurried, yet when constantly attending lectures and confrencee, she jets around the country and the world. She is always running late.
During an interview at her office, where family photos give a picture of her personal life and stacks of paper are found on the floor, she talked about the one thing she enjoys the most about her job.
“Knowledge transfer is my favorite,” Ryan said, “translating research into practice.” She regularly lectures to healthcare providers about the link between diabetes and periodontal disease and encourages collaboration between dentists and all health care providers.
Some of Ryan’s patients travel a long distance to see her. One patient, a 75-year-old woman, has been coming from Manhattan for treatment for the past 20 years. “There was an unfortunate time when Dr. Ryan wanted to give up her practice,” said the woman, who requested to remain anonymous. “Subsequently I asked her to reconsider.” The woman said Ryan is very attentive to her patients and once interrupted a ski vacation to return the woman’s non-emergency call.
Ryan’s role on the campus allows her to build bridges within the community. “She has the ability to link the dental school to other fields,” Golub said. As associate dean for strategic planning, she is working on moving the dental school from its current location on the main campus to the Health Sciences Center, where faculty and students can interact with their colleagues in other health fields, Golub said, “Nothing was being done before that, and we were stuck here.”
Ryan’s colleagues and mentors respect her ability to get things done. “She is like a laser beam when she is very interested in doing something,” said Israel Kleinberg, a distinguished professor and director of the Division of Translational Oral Biology. Moving the dental school closer to other Health Sciences Schools is crucial for the type of research that Ryan does. Ryan believes that the dentist is the physician of the mouth and needs to work with the regular physician for the overall health of the patient.
Ryan was the first dentist at Stony Brook to perform research on the link between type II diabetes and periodontal disease, Golub said. Others had done research on type I diabetes, but type II diabetes was more difficult and needed more participation and follow up with the patients. “Ryan was able to convince other professionals of the importance of this issue,” Golub said. “Type I was easy, but Maria was willing to work with the type II diabetes patients, wanted to put hours and hours of work into looking into the type II.”
Ryan’s interest in type II diabetes stems from her personal life. Her father died from complications of diabetes three years ago. Ryan, who grew up in Bayside, Queens, was one of three children and was very close to her father, according to her mother Athena Emmanuel. Her father wanted her to receive the best education and paid for her to attend Barnard College at Columbia University, where she received her bachelor’s degree. “Her father said, ‘I would spend the last dollar I ever made so long as you take care of yourself.’ This sank in her head,” Emmanuel said.
Ryan herself was away at a conference, as she often is, her mother said. “Sometimes I wish she would slow down.”
Emmanuel speaks very fondly of her son in-law, Charles Ryan, who is a Senior Vice President, Chief Intellectual Property Counsel at Forest Laboratories. He has a Ph.D. in oral biology and pathology, as well as a law degree. They met in dental school at Stony Brook.
“I met Maria in class. She cleaned my teeth, two for one, cute girl cleaning my teeth,” Charles said. “I asked her girlfriend if she was single. She said, ‘Maria broke up with her boyfriend on Friday, and I would not wait to ask her out, because she is never alone.'”
Their first date was the following Monday, and they were engaged six weeks later, Charles Ryan said. When Maria told her parents, they did not believe her, and her father walked out of the room. “Your parents acted very strange,” Charles said to Maria, “Maria said, ‘Well, I have done this before.” She had been engaged twice before and had broken the second engagement off right before the wedding. On the wedding day, Maria was late showing up at the church. “My husband got nervous and he thought I was not going to show up, but the limo took us to the wrong church,” Maria said.
“Maria can’t manage paper. She has two offices full of paper. She moves into an office and fills it with paper and abandons it,” her husband said. Maria overbooks and commits to many things, so she can never be on time. “She is always late for everything. She arrives for her flights five minutes before a plane takes off,” Golub said.
Ryan’s greatest strength that most everyone around her speaks of is her ability to speak in public.
“If she asked what she should do if she could only do one thing, I would say public speaking,” a colleague, Stephen Walker, said. “She blossoms when interacting with people. She is not good in solitude.”
Ryan has traveled around the world to speak about her latest research on the link between periodontal disease and diabetes.
Diabetes is growing rapidly and is an epidemic in some countries like China, India and Australia, Ryan said.
If left untreated, periodontal disease can increase the risk for developing diabetes.
On the other hand, people with uncontrolled diabetes have an increased risk for developing periodontal disease.
“It’s sort of a vicious cycle,” Ryan said. “Periodontal disease is the most common chronic inflammatory disease in the world, and yet it’s an often silent disease. Many people are not aware they have the disease.”
“She was fortunate to have the influence of Golub and Kleinberg,” Charles Ryan said. “They are both different; Golub on discovering drugs, Kleinberg’s focus is on non-pharmaceutical discoveries. Ryan is interested in both and is the bridge between both.”
Ryan’s ultimate goal is to be part of the change that brings oral health to a different platform.
Most of her colleagues agree that she is the only individual that can move forward and get the participation of all of the people that offer something unique to meet her goal, and that’s what makes her the most exceptional person.
“The primary goal is to disseminate the message to the public and to ensure that the new findings are incorporated into the educational process.” Ryan said.