words by Merry Sue Baum / photograph by John Emerson
hen you ask Anthony Volpe, DDS, how he got where he is today, he immediately captivates you with a delightful little allegory.
“You’re sitting at home one day, and you hear a knock on the door,” he says, rapping his knuckles on the table for effect. “‘Who is it?’ you ask, and the person on the other side says, ‘I’m opportunity.’ Now, two possible responses can occur. There are people who say, ‘Who called you? I don’t need you; why are you bothering me?’ And other people say, ‘Opportunity, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you all my life.’”
Thus he begins the story of how he went from running a private dental practice to becoming vice president of clinical research at Colgate-Palmolive Company. It actually all started as early as his college days. As a chemistry major, he did research on weekends and in the summers at several local pharmaceutical companies — including Colgate-Palmolive. After graduation, he was called into the Army for two years, and when he returned to his native Newark, NJ, he decided to go to dental school. Even then, he continued doing research.
“I think I had already started to drift toward industry, way back then,” he says. “But after dental school, you’ve been so immersed in dentistry that you want to practice. It’s only natural. So that’s what I did.” Volpe opened a practice in the center of Nutley, NJ, which soon began to thrive. He enjoyed the work and the interaction with his patients.
Then, about 10 years later, he got the proverbial “knock” on the door. Colgate-Palmolive was opening a technology center near Piscataway, NJ, and wanted Volpe to come on board as a full-time researcher. Making the decision wasn’t easy, he recalls, however, he realized the timing was ideal, since he had no monetary obligations. Most of his colleagues, on the other hand, disagreed. They couldn’t fathom his giving up a large, lucrative practice that took 10 years to build, or that he was willing to take a huge salary cut: He would make only about 20 percent of what his practice yielded each year. “They thought I was crazy,” he says. “But I knew I’d never have this opportunity again and if it didn’t work out, I knew I could always go back to practicing. Still, it took a lot of courage.”
Three weeks after signing on, however, any lingering misgivings disappeared. Volpe’s supervisor, at the time, asked him to represent Colgate-Palmolive at the annual American Dental Association convention being held in San Francisco that year. “I got to the West Coast and looked around and thought, ‘How would I have ever gotten here if I were practicing dentistry in Nutley, NJ,’” he recalls. “That was it. I never looked back.”
He began his new career in the laboratory doing basic research — studies that expand the understanding of human biology, disease mechanisms and processes, as well as how drugs, or other remedies, work. He later moved into applied research, which has specific commercial objectives, like formulating products, processes or services. Eventually he conducted clinical research, which involves testing new products for safety and effectiveness. “Working in industry offers a different approach to promoting good oral health,” he explains. “You explore problems in the laboratory and find ways to prevent and remedy them.”
At one point, Volpe was put in charge of a clinical research group. All the scientists in his group had advanced degrees in the biological sciences, and his background was purely in chemistry. He was finding it difficult to communicate effectively with his coworkers, and vice versa, so he decided more education was in order. He enrolled at Rutgers University and earned a master’s degree in biological sciences. Colgate-Palmolive picked up the tab, another benefit, he says, of working in industry.
Today, Volpe acts as a liaison for the dental profession, manufacturers, researchers and numerous dental organizations. Because of his extensive background, he was recently called in as an intermediary when the American Dental Association wanted to expand its relationship with the Chinese Dental Association. “I had already established a rapport with many of the key dental professionals in China, so I was able to help. It was very rewarding,” he says. “I’ve been around the globe and back, and I’ve met so many wonderful people, over the years. Going into industry was one of the smartest moves I ever made.”
He quickly points out, however, that he keeps current in every aspect of dentistry. He teaches at UMDNJ-New Jersey Dental School and developed and now helps run — along with Arnold Rosenheck, DMD, assistant dean for hospital affairs and institutional development at NJDS — the New Horizon’s program. It is a series of lunchtime talks given by dentists whose careers are in areas other than, or in addition to, general dentistry. Volpe and Rosenheck also present information on the many career options in dentistry. “There is no other dental school in the country, that I know of, that has a program like this,” Volpe says. “It’s important that students know they have a variety of options open to them; we take great pride in making sure they are well informed.” Volpe adds that Colgate-Palmolive Company funds the New Horizon’s program, through the Foundation of UMDNJ, in partnership with NJDS.
Along with being involved in education at NJDS, Volpe is helping with the school’s capital campaign. He also spends some of his time lecturing across the country and around the world; he “stays tuned,” as he puts it, to what’s happening in the field through continuing education programs; and he maintains licenses to practice in New Jersey, New York and New Hampshire. “I’m in the dental profession,” he says, “I’ve just distributed my time differently.”