As a young girl, Emyli Peralta was always enamored by the dentist’s office and knew early on that she wanted to help preserve smiles. Today, she is an aspiring dentist and biomedical sciences student who is helping to do that through her research. She recently won UCF’s Distinguished Undergraduate Researcher Award for her research into early detection for cavity risk.

“I had braces in middle school and I loved going to the orthodontist,” Peralta says. “My orthodontist was really an inspiration for me too. She’s a woman of color like me, so very early on I could see myself in her shoes and wanted to become a dentist.” says Peralta, who plans to go to dental school after graduating from the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences Dec. 13.

Having worked as a dental assistant for the last four years at UCF’s Student Health Center, Peralta says she noticed a visible difference in the consistency of her patients’ saliva which led her to question whether this was connected to the frequency of cavities.

“My orthodontist was really an inspiration for me too. She’s a woman of color like me.” – Emyli Peralta, UCF student

“In some patients no matter how perfect their oral hygiene was, they are very prone to cavities no matter what, and some people are not prone at all,” says Peralta. “They’ve never had a cavity and this does not necessarily have to do with dental hygiene habits, they may just not be predisposed.”

This observation provided the basis for her independent study, investigating whether the protein concentration in the saliva can predict the number of cavities a person will have over his or her lifetime.

Working with UCF faculty researcher Robert Borgon, Peralta collected saliva samples from 43 patients at the Student Health Center. She then tested the samples for protein concentration and compared the levels to the number of cavities in the patients’ dental history. While initial results didn’t show a positive correlation between the protein concentration and cavity frequency, Peralta is revising the study with a larger sample size and has narrowed her focus on the concentration of specific proteins found in saliva — salivary amylase and secretory immunoglobulin.

“We believe these proteins can impact the bacteria’s ability to cause cavities or promote inflammation,” she says. “We’ll also look at other contributing variables like bacteria, as well as try a different collection method for saliva samples.”

Her ultimate goal, she says, is to develop a diagnostic tool that can detect and notify patients early in life that they are at higher risk for cavities.

“Once you start getting cavities, it’s very hard to stop because you have that pathogenic bacteria in your body that can hop from tooth to tooth and cause more cavities,” she says. “So having some sort of diagnostic test that tells you early on can be a great preventative measure.”

Peralta published her findings in her thesis for UCF’s Honors in the Major program and is working to publish her research in an undergraduate journal.

“Emyli has focus, discipline, and fortitude that is very admirable, and she continues to push towards her goals without hesitation,” Peralta’s mentor Borgon says. “She doesn’t slow down, she is always working on the next step.”

“To be the first one in my family … to have made it this far has been a huge responsibility.” – Emyli Peralt, UCF student

Peralta, a first-generation immigrant student who moved to the U.S. from Dominican Republic at age 3, is also a beacon of pride and a role model for her family.

“To be the first one in my family, and even extended family, to have made it this far has been a huge responsibility,” Peralta says. “Not only do I want to be motivation for my siblings and cousins, I want to make my parents proud because I’ve seen how hard they work.”

And her impact extends beyond her family. Peralta volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club, where she introduces and promotes STEM careers to elementary school children in her community.

“I want to show them that someone looks like them, who speaks Spanish and is a first-generation immigrant can make it this far,” she says. “I tell them not to limit themselves to what they see at home, because their parents didn’t have the same opportunities that they have. I want them to know that if they want to be a doctor or a neuroscientist, if they apply themselves and work hard enough, they can make it.”