Faculty and Staff, Orthodontics, Research

Orthodontist finds intrigue in research, patient care

Kelly Mitchell, DDS, at left, with Beatrice Williams, DDS '24, and Laura Jacox, DDS, PhD, MS. Mitchell loves working at ASOD because of the collaborative environment and appreciates working with people like Jacox and Williams.
A blonde woman in glasses

Adams School of Dentistry’s Kelly Mitchell, DDS

When Adams School of Dentistry’s Kelly Mitchell, DDS, got braces at age 12, she had a different response than most of her peers. Already interested in science, Mitchell was more fascinated than bothered by her orthodontia, and it started her on her current career path, though she took a few detours along the way.

“My dad was a science teacher, and I was developing a scientific mind-set as a kid. We had a subscription to Scientific American, and through that, I became interested in forensic anthropology and facial reconstruction,” she said. “I found my orthodontic treatment intriguing.  In my mind it seemed like a neat thing – combining orthodontics and forensic anthropology.”

In the coming years, though, Mitchell strayed from science, instead pursuing a degree in economics from Wellesley College. In her senior year, she found her way back to dentistry, working at Boston University’s dental school after graduation.

“I met several people in the dental profession who told me ‘If you can get into UNC for dental school, go there.’ I was happy to be accepted,” she said.

A career in orthodontics

As a dental student, she went in with an open mind, not pursuing any specific track initially, but she found herself gravitating toward orthodontics and decided to pursue it as a career path.

“I liked that orthodontics is like an engineering project that evolves over the course of treatment. The regular visits make it possible to develop relationships with patients. I also liked the artistic aspect of it, from designing a smile to fiddling with wire bending.”

Beyond patient care, Mitchell also enjoyed the research possibilities orthodontics provided. As a resident, she worked with the late William Proffit, DDS, PhD, a world-renowned educator and long-time chair of the ASOD Department of Orthodontics. He encouraged her to explore research, even while she was considering a different path.

“At the time, I felt like I could contribute in a more meaningful way if I spent time in private practice treating patients and running a practice. I told [Proffit] I would be back, but I needed to go out and experience real-world orthodontics first,” she said.

An advocate for team science

Mitchell attended the American Association of Orthodontists conference in Chicago with ASOD faculty and students.

She owned and ran her practice in Greensboro for 17 years before eventually keeping her word to Proffit and returning to ASOD as a member of the orthodontics faculty in 2020. She quickly presented her colleague and future collaborator, Laura Jacox, DDS, PhD, MS, with a list of research questions derived from her years in practice.

“I had created a Word document cataloging clinical challenges that I faced on a regular basis. I felt that certain issues weren’t adequately addressed in the literature. Laura immediately embraced the ideas and returned the list to me with color coding to indicate which were short, medium, or long-term projects.”

Having like-minded orthodontics faculty in her corner makes ASOD an ideal work environment for Mitchell. She also appreciates the time she’s able to spend with residents, working on best practices and exploring research interests.

“What I love about being here are the collaborations that are so enriching and help me be a better teacher,” Mitchell said. “It’s energizing to work with such exceptional people.”

Inspired by practice

Mitchell sees mentoring as a highlight of her work with ASOD. She said she is able to take her experience in clinical orthodontics and look at it through a new lens, as residents and dental students learn and adapt new ways of thinking. Mitchell is currently mentoring two residents on research projects that came from her initial list, including looking at outcomes when dental crowding is treated with or without extractions. Her team has taken advantage of UNC’s large database of treated orthodontic patients to complete a retrospective study that will be ready for publication later this year.

Her research has also been put to practical use. Mitchell said orthodontists can face liability questions when patients grind their teeth during treatment. In these cases, patients and parents can mistakenly attribute tooth damage to the brackets and wires, but Mitchell said there is not much discussion about this in orthodontic circles. She wants to do something to raise awareness of the issue. “We created a statement to add to consent forms, and now we’re starting a project to survey orthodontists about their experiences with patients who grind their teeth. We’re looking ahead at another line of research, using intraoral scanners to assess changes in tooth anatomy over time,” she said.

The right culture

Mitchell is excited about working at ASOD and the future possibilities as the academic reorganization begins.

“This university and school mean a lot to me, and I feel like it’s time to give back,” she said.

Her optimism extends beyond the classroom and the lab to the school’s culture as well. As the Graduate Orthodontic Clinic Director, Mitchell said she feels a responsibility to help staff members and others function as a great team.

Mitchell loves spending time with her family and being outdoors.

“I appreciate the cultural shift happening at the school. We can contribute to that by bringing strong new team members in and building up those who’ve been here a while. The institutional knowledge of long-term employees is invaluable. My focus has been to help staff feel more in control, heard, and appreciated,” she said.

Outside of her work at ASOD, Mitchell spends time outdoors and with her family. They are currently hosting a Guatemalan exchange student at their Greensboro home, and he shares a love of basketball with her 16-year-old son. Thanks to a fellow faculty member who has season tickets, the boys recently saw UNC beat Florida State! She also enjoys relaxing at their tiny home on High Rock Lake as well as fishing, boating and other watersports.