To be honest, my decision to pursue a career in dental academia came as quite a shock. I thought I had my whole career mapped out. Prior to high school I set my heart on being a dentist, and it was my dream to have my own little private practice in the Central Valley. Little did I know that there would be several unexpected opportunities that would change my career trajectory.
I first realized that I have a passion for teaching during undergrad. I chose to attend University of the Pacific and participated in their pre-dental program. During my second year, I was invited to teach as a Supplemental Instructor for the Biological Sciences Department. Basically, this meant that I got to hold my own biweekly review sessions, present condensed lectures covering core concepts, and design study materials including group activities, worksheets and mock practicals to facilitate student learning. When Dr. Luthy first offered me the position, it felt really daunting. Being naturally shy and an introvert, I never imagined myself standing in front of a classroom full of students. However, I was up for the challenge and accepted the position. I am so glad that I did because I LOVED it! I remember staying up late and neglecting my own studies just because I wanted to continue developing new study guides. (Don’t worry. I did fine on my exams. I just got significantly less sleep that year). There was one particular evening where I entered my classroom completely exhausted, wondering how I was going to make it through the review session. Turns out, that was probably the best review session I ever had. The students were really engaged. And furthermore, you could tell that they were gaining a thorough understanding of the material. There is a certain look students get when they really start to grasp a concept. Their faces light up and it’s almost as if you can see a lightbulb turning on over their heads. It’s seriously one of my favorite things. Anyhow, I ended up leaving that review session feeling overwhelmingly satisfied with how the evening had turned out and more energized than before it started. I felt like I had found my calling. And ever since then, I have known that my career needs to include teaching.
Research has been part of my career for quite some time now. Oddly enough, I used to see it as a really fun hobby that I would eventually have to give up. I was so invested in my childhood dream of becoming a dentist, that it never occurred to me that I could pursue research as part of my career. It took one really amazing mentor to open my eyes to this possibility. During undergrad I worked in the lab of Dr. Katerina Venderova. One of the things I love about Pacific is that students really get to know their faculty. In the context of research, this often means that students learn directly from their PI’s and that they work side-by-side. The Venderova Lab studied Parkinson’s disease using Drosophila models, so nearly every day we would sit down and sort flies together. I still remember the day Dr. Venderova told me that I ought to pursue a PhD. I remember feeling totally stunned because it was completely off my radar. However, that conversation planted a seed, and with Dr. Venderova’s continued encouragement I eventually looked into applying for dual degree programs.
Now I’m here at UCSF in my 5th year of training as part of the DDS/PhD program. I am still working out the details of what I want for my future career. However, I know that at least part of it will consist of academic dentistry. Academia provides tremendous flexibility and a wide variety of opportunities for intellectual and clinical pursuits. For me, it combines three things that I love: research, clinical care, and teaching. I know that I will never be bored. I am excited at the prospect of not only contributing to the future of our field and to the design of novel therapies but also in providing moral support for students. Dental school is rigorous. There is no denying that. It gives me great joy to think that I will get to be a Dr. Venderova for students in years to come, to encourage them when the road gets tough, to help them find their perfect niche, and to foster their growth as individuals as well as students. For me, academia is a place where discoveries are made, great minds meld, and communities are formed. It is the place where the sterile intellectual world of research meets the empathy and emotional awareness displayed in clinic. Personally, to have one without the other would be an imbalance.
A career in dental academia might not be the right fit for everyone. However, it certainly is an excellent option to consider. No matter the career path you choose, I encourage you to discover what you are passionate about and to pursue it whole-heartedly. If I have learned anything through my career journey, it has been to keep an open mind and to hold my dreams loosely, allowing them to change over time. Because you never know what opportunities and experiences will come your way. The best ones are often those that you never dreamed existed.