William V. Giannobile, D.M.Sc. ’96, P.D. ’96.

The new dean of Harvard School of Dental Medicine William V. Giannobile, D.M.Sc. ’96, P.D. ’96.

Courtesy of HSDM

Campus & Community

Pandemic helps set new dean’s priorities

8 min read

William V. Giannobile faces today’s challenges with focus on future

William V. Giannobile, D.M.Sc. ’96, P.D. ’96, assumed his role as dean of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) on Sept. 1. A prominent educator and leader in the field of periodontology, Giannobile shares his vision for the School, as well as his observations about beginning his deanship in the throes of a pandemic.


William V. Giannobile

HSDM: Starting as a new dean during a pandemic comes with a host of challenges, could you describe how you’ll navigate these challenges in the near term?

Giannobile: All of us have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. In particular, dental education and clinical care have been hit hard. I am extremely grateful to Interim Dean Vicki Rosen and the HSDM leadership team for navigating through some of the toughest parts of the crisis. They took important measures to protect our patients and our community. We will continue to focus on the safety of our students, faculty, and staff delivering clinical care in our clinics, while at the same time providing an excellent virtual learning environment for those students learning from home.

Research was also significantly affected with the shutdown of clinical and basic science research efforts. It has been very encouraging to see these activities ramp up again. Harvard has taken proactive approaches to protect our community with increased testing of our students, faculty, and staff who remain on-site. Our dental teams are involved in innovations in diagnostic testing including point-of-care testing with saliva diagnostics. Starting on Sept. 1, my biggest priority is working with School leadership to continue to support our clinical and educational efforts so that we can optimize our ability to further research, teaching, and clinical care in the face of the pandemic.

HSDM: What other priorities will you focus on at HSDM?

Giannobile: I have identified several areas to assess the landscape at HSDM. This will include launching a climate survey that will take a fresh look at the current climate for our faculty, staff, and students. Promoting excellence through diversity and inclusion will be an important focus for me and for the HSDM community. We will begin the process of outlining a strategic plan and goals. This will be a grassroots effort involving faculty, staff, students, alumni, and HSDM-HMS [Harvard Medical School] affiliates. We will also look at initiatives for industrial-academic partnerships, dental care delivery in collaboration with affiliates, and development-related activities to promote a better cost structure for dental students. In the areas of research and discovery, we will look to strengthen our efforts in regenerative medicine, head and neck oncology, and computational medicine and the microbiome, among other emerging areas of research. The School also has exciting research in many areas such as the Initiative to Integrate Oral Health and Medicine, developmental biology, and digital dentistry that will continue to be supported.

HSDM: As the School’s 11th dean in its more than 150-year history, what will define your leadership?

Giannobile: I will do my best to advance the wonderful legacy of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine into the next decade. Given the many global opportunities for outreach and promotion of the School, I will work to promote the School through continuing education, community and global outreach through collaborations in the developing world, and by encouraging student and faculty exchanges to enhance HSDM’s reach internationally. HSDM will continue to serve as a role model of the good will of dental health care providers and scholars to advance oral health care delivery.

As a servant leader, I am one who strives to support those surrounding me for our shared purpose. I will work collaboratively with our School and University leadership to support the University’s vision for continued excellence of the dental school as a valued stakeholder in the University’s biomedical research and health care enterprise. HSDM will continue to train the next generation of leadership in dental medicine to advance the field. I will strive to be inclusive, promote diversity, equity, and integrity as a part of my day-to-day workings in collaboration with the leadership team. I hope to promote a culture whereby members of the HSDM community are enthusiastic and engaged in all aspects of their work, and continue to make the School the exemplar for dental education and research. Creating an environment where personal and professional success are important for all those in our community will help us work together to promote the advancement of dental education, clinical care, research, and societal impact.

Men wearing masks and talking.

Charles Mwele (left), the laboratory coordinator and instructional dental technologist in HSDM’s Preclinical Learning Lab, speaks with Dean William Giannobile. Also pictured in the background is Andreas Radics, associate director of Labs and Clinical Materials.

Photo by Steve Gilbert

HSDM: What do you see as HSDM’s strongest assets?

Giannobile: One of our strongest assets is the high quality of students who come to HSDM for their education and training. I am so impressed by the backgrounds and experiences of our entering students. They continue to inject an enthusiasm that motivates everyone at the School. While HSDM is one of the smallest dental schools in the country, it is surrounded by the most robust academic biomedical research enterprise in the world. Being able to partner with entities such as Harvard Medical School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the hospitals, the Forsyth Institute, the Wyss Institute, as well as the private sector in biotechnology, makes for a rich environment like no other. This infrastructure provides strong partnerships for the talented staff and faculty that work at Harvard.

While our students are one of our greatest assets, the cost of dental education has outstripped inflation so dramatically that the quality of students who attend U.S. dental schools is greatly affected by their ability to afford a top education. Offering tuition assistance in the form of scholarships and grant support needs to be a priority to continue to attract the very best and brightest to HSDM and reduce debt and stress for our students. Currently, the Freeman, Grant and Franklin scholarship is a great example of a funding mechanism to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to come to HSDM. Alumna Mercedes Franklin and is a strong advocate for the support of underrepresented students. I intend to form a group to focus on developing more financial support for students who may not have had the resources to attend Harvard in the past.

HSDM: Tell us about your background. What led you to a career in dental education?

Giannobile: I was born in Chicago and my parents later moved our family (my three sisters and me) to a small farm in the Ozarks of Missouri. Early on as a young person, I was very curious about science and medicine. I had an inspiring mentor in my high school chemistry teacher who helped me get involved in international science and engineering fairs. I represented our region in these competitions and was exposed to many exciting areas within science as a high school student. He helped me gain the confidence to become a first-generation college student. Also, during college I was fortunate to work with a local dentist who had a farm in our area. He was encouraging about dentistry and balancing it with a good quality of life. After starting my dental school training, I spent my first summer at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) as a predoctoral research fellow in the Bone Research Branch. There, I was engaged in research and discovery activities that cemented my interest in a career in dental education. Supportive faculty encouraged me to seek out advanced clinical and research training after dental school. I was accepted into a postdoctoral program at HSDM supported by the NIDCR Dentist-Scientist program. At HSDM, my interests were cultivated and advanced by eminent scholars and leaders in the oral health research field. These individuals were tremendous role models for me to become a clinician-scientist engaged in teaching, clinical care, and research.

HSDM: What excites you about returning to HSDM to serve as dean?

Giannobile: I feel honored and privileged to return to HSDM as dean to carry on the rich legacy of our past leaders including most recently, Interim Dean Vicki Rosen and Dean Bruce Donoff. I am excited to rejoin HSDM with its reputation as the premier institution for the advancement and innovation of dental education and research. As a young person, I never dreamed I would have such an amazing opportunity to receive an education at Harvard. At HSDM, I gained wonderful experience early in my career from my clinical training, as well as collaborations with the Forsyth Institute and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the expansive biotechnology community in Boston. My years at HSDM were the most transformative of my academic life. Now serving as dean, I hope to fully act on my life’s purpose: to inspire others to believe in themselves to be their best, with the goal of propelling new knowledge forward.