Rishma Shah

Rishma Shah is a craniofacial engineer and assistant professor in the Department of Orthodontics within the UNC School of Dentistry. Her research focuses on using a patient’s cells to engineer facial muscle for implantation.

Rishma Shah talks to a patientphoto by Megan May
October 24th, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I am still a child at heart and growing – in experience! But as an actual child, I was passionate about acting and playing music, dreaming I would be an actor and DJ. The dream was spurred by an inner desire to entertain and be adored – it would be disingenuous should I say that my desire now is any different. My career has given me ample opportunity to be a star and enjoy the limelight with an audience of students and patients that I can care for and please.


“Hustle to generate one’s muscle.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

Working in the hospital as a newly qualified dentist when I was just 24, I saw the effects of mouth cancer. The treatment was as rudimentary then as it is now — excision leaving a scaffold of the human face, which can be made presentable, but rarely functional, with prosthetic parts. I was inspired by the grace and acceptance of the patients to their condition knowing that their life had changed along with its quality. This, coupled with the skill of the maxillofacial surgeons and their colleagues, engendered within me a desire to invent a way to regenerate tissue lost due to the effects of ravaging diseases.

Rishma Shah in the Himalayas

In 2014, Shah trekked through the Himalayas.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

I noticed how easy it is to throw away things when they are spent or broken down. I was told by my fiancé that our ironing board would no longer stand upright as the legs would not lock and repair was not possible — a new one was needed. An ironing board was easily affordable, but I wanted to explore the alternative options. Could it be fixed? If so, how might I explain to my fiancé, without injuring his pride, that the board was fixable? I managed to fix the board and, as it happened, he was delighted that I had fresh eyes to explore fixing the board and the ingenuity to do so! Always keep an open mind and never underestimate the inherent human capacity to fix problems.

What are your passions outside of research?

Walking amid beautiful scenery, and cooking passionately to delight my friends and family. When I enjoy these pleasures, I am reminded to do my best, to enjoy the moment with utmost mindfulness, and feel gratitude within my heart for the opportunities that come my way.

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