Photo of John's Research with Teeth

John Steppe '13: Sinks His Teeth Into Research

By Maegan Beasley '13

McKendree senior John Steppe is well known for his remarkable ability on the basketball court. He is currently captain of the Bearcats basketball team and has been a four year-starter. Off the court, the biology major is doing his research project on teeth and the effects of acid erosion in different liquids.

His interest in studying teeth has been a goal for some time. “My mom has been my biggest influence,” he said. His mother used to be a dental assistant and made sure her son went for his check-up every six months.

“As a kid, I looked up to her, and she taught me to look up to dentists. During my sophomore year of high school, my mom asked me if I was interested in going into dentistry. I had never thought about it before then, but after that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

His mother works for Heartland Dental Care, a program that sets up dental offices all around the United States. With her assistance, John collected extracted teeth throughout the previous summer.

Photo of Teeth Research“I had 150 teeth to start with, ranging from molars to eye teeth, and I used them all,” John said. “I put them in liquids with different pH levels to see how each level affected the breakdown of enamel. I wanted to see if the enamel erosion was just from the acid or something different, like another ingredient in the drinks."

To start, he experimented with 12 molar hydrochloric acid, which is extremely dangerous. “My advisor, Dr. Adam Tournier, had to always be there to assist me. I had to make sure to wear safety goggles, gloves, and an apron. This acid was so strong, if I somehow got it on my clothes; it could burn right through them. With such a pure acid, the sample tooth I put in there dissolved within six hours. We put it in the solution, left, and when we came back, it was as if it was never there because the acid was clear.”

John put other teeth in specific beverages. “I tested the teeth in drinks with pH levels 2 through 6. I experimented with Coke, Ski, orange juice, and McDonald’s sweet tea, and took pictures every 24 hours for seven days. After one week, the McDonald’s sweet tea and Coke had the worst stains, but the orange juice and Ski had eroded their teeth the most. Orange juice was even worse than Ski, with 32 percent of its tooth gone.”

John gained valuable experience from the experiment, which will aid his future research. “I’ve learned a lot from doing this project, and how teeth decay and interact with certain substances. The main thing I’ve learned, though, is how to correctly do research. You’d never think how detailed it really is, but a lot of steps go into publishing research.”

As John’s basketball playing days at McKendree come to an end, he looks forward to concentrating on dentistry. “Becoming a dentist is where my real interests lie. So, my next step is to go and attend interviews for dental schools. McKendree gave me the opportunity to meet new people and create many new relationships. This is what set me on the right path toward a successful future.”