Brains Rule at ADEA Members’ Annual Gathering

Dr. Richard Valachovic
In this month’s letter, ADEA President & CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic shares what you may have missed at this year’s ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in San Antonio.

Right from the start, that most complex of human organs—the brain—dominated this year’s ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition with the ambitious theme: The Science of Learning.

“As far as we can tell, we’re the only species on the planet that has grown so sophisticated that we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into deciphering our own programming language.”That was the assessment of David Eagleman, Ph.D., the year’s Opening Plenary speaker, who energized a packed house with a fascinating talk on the brain—in his words, “the most complicated device we’ve found in the universe.” Dr. Eagleman argued that educators need to focus more on cultivating cognitive flexibility in their students, and he shared his ideas on how to create a “brain-compatible” classroom where students feel engaged and inspired to learn.

Three symposia programmed by the Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors, Steven Young, D.D.S., M.S., further explored the science of learning.

The first of these, Urban Legend or Brain Fact: The Truth About Learning, busted myths about the brain that have been successfully used to market a range of well-known products (Coca-Cola was one of the first!), most of which have unproven benefits, and some of which can even harm cognitive performance. What truly boosts learning and memory? Prior experience (learning is context-dependent), pictures (vision dominates the other senses) and practice (spaced learning is better than massed learning).

The second symposium, Drilling Down on LD & ADHD: Understanding and Accommodating Students with Disabilities, also dispelled a few myths while exploring the social and emotional challenges that can further hamper these students’ academic performance. This session also discussed strategies for accommodating students’ needs and the legal obligations of schools.

The last of the symposia, Engaging the Brain: Art and The Science of Dentistry, explored the value of training in art appreciation to enhance three skill sets: close observation, unbiased analysis and clear, empathetic communication. The presenters described a phenomenally successful elective course developed by The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The course capitalizes on the brain’s preference for visual learning, creates opportunities for repeat practice and takes place in the sort of enriched, “brain-compatible” environment that Dr. Eagleman described as conducive to learning. Is it any wonder that the course has a waiting list?

As you can see, brains ruled at this year’s Annual Session, but it was far from dry or academic in the less flattering understanding of that word. In addition to food for thought, the gathering provided nourishment for the senses and opportunities to connect with colleagues in a festive environment. The conference hotel and the adjacent convention center sit alongside San Antonio’s famous River Walk, a meandering system of canals and bridges flanked by grand hotels, historic structures and inviting restaurants. This year’s opening reception was held at the water’s edge, where an all-woman mariachi band serenaded the crowd. I don’t know how many of us were able to enjoy the guacamole and ceviche before heading out to dinner that night, but I can tell you that more than 2,200 ADEA members attended at least some of the conference events, making this our most highly attended meeting to date.

The next morning, it was business as usual: another dynamic plenary speaker to jump-start the day and dozens of educational sessions on topics as diverse as cultural competency, tobacco cessation, dental service organizations, the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling on college admissions and, yes, more brainy topics, including neurobiology. Some of these sessions represented unique partnerships between ADEA Sections and Special Interest Groups. This growing trend toward collaboration was evident in several joint ADEA Council meetings as well.

The one complaint I hear consistently each year is that there are so many good sessions, it is impossible to attend everything. In that sense, my annual recap is as much for those who attended as it is for those who were unable to join us. Here are a few vignettes and sound bites to give you a taste of what else you may have missed, whether or not you made it to San Antonio.


Chair-elect of the ADEA Board of Directors Lily Garcia delivers part of her speech in Spanish at the Opening of the ADEA House of Delegates. She tells the story of her grandmother who grew up in South Texas at a time of segregation. The older woman’s love of education had a lasting legacy: Every one of her 17 grandchildren earned a university degree. Her impact on Lily is clear when she announces her primary focus for the coming year: to be a strong, positive influence on the next generation of health professionals.

Earlier in the day, college students don white coats at the ADEA GoDental Workshop and Recruitment Fair for Predental Students and Advisors. More than 250 participants take advantage of this opportunity to consult health professions advisors and admissions officers from more than 50 dental schools.

Current dental students convene for the launch of the ADEA Student Diversity Leadership Program, which will train and mentor students with an interest in academic careers.

Out-of-towners visit the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Dental School for a tour of the current facility. They also get a glimpse of the new state-of-the-art facility under construction where faculty and students will soon conduct research and clinical trials to advance innovation and patient care.

Quotes of the Day:

“All things are possible with money, software and time.”
R. Todd Watkins, Jr., D.D.S., Assistant Dean for Dental Education and Informatics at East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine, speaking during the ADEA Signature Series on disruptive innovation in health care education.

“Thank you for speaking up for us.”
Nina Godiwalla, speaker at the Evening Plenary on Gender Issues and author of Suits: A Woman on Wall Street, quoting an eye-opening remark from a reader of her book with whom she had previously thought she had little in common.


The Exhibit Hall opens. It takes a long walk and three escalator rides to get there, but the products on display, the poster sessions, the ADEA TechExpo, the New Idea Sessions and the ever-popular free lunch make it well worth the trip.

Now you see it, now you don’t. The timer is set and each presenter has only five minutes to update the audience on a new teaching practice or instructional technology during Teaching and Learning With Emerging Technologies and Informatics: Short Talks. This rapid-fire session comes to a close at noon. Two hours later, folks are at it again. The topic this time: teaching innovations in the biomedical sciences.

Attendees pack the room to learn about the latest ADEA Trends in Dental Education and leave with three take-aways:

  • The 2014 dental school applicant pool is slightly down with the greatest decline among minority students.
  • We have a new tool to identify promising students from low socio-economic backgrounds, which should help us to recruit more of these students.
  • With many new schools established and others likely to open in the next few years, we have built the educational capacity to welcome these promising students.

Quotes of the Day:

“I wish we could come to a consensus and put everybody on an equal footing.”
Questioner during a session titled Understanding the Selection Criteria for Residency Programs in the Climate of Pass/Fail.

“The team at ADEA has taken a small insular organization concerned with maintaining dental schools to a dynamic organization that, along with our strategic partners, is creating the future of our profession.” 
Kenneth L. Kalkwarf, D.D.S., M.S., Dean Emeritus of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Dental School, and recipient of the ADEA Distinguished Service Award.

“What will the next generation of dental hygienists look like, because they’re in your hands? What role will they play—are you preparing them for any and all roles? What skill sets will they need and how will you change your systems to provide them with those skills? Will a new curriculum be needed if we’re going to be viewed as integrated into the health care system?”
Ann Battrell, M.S.D.H., Executive Director of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association speaking at a session titled Transforming Dental Hygiene Education: Recommendations for the Future.

“When my grandfather came to this country in 1900, he was part of the 1% that came from Latin America. In 2012, 48% of immigrants came from Latin America and the Caribbean. These are the shifts that are taking place.”
Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., President of The University of Texas at San Antonio, speaking at the ADEA Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education (ADEA CCI) College President’s Symposium.


An impressive turnout of (dare we hope?) future candidates listens eagerly to the advice of current leaders during a session titled Will the Next Dean Please Stand Up? The United States currently has only two dental school deans from underrepresented minority groups. Many leave this session encouraged that a more diverse group of deans may emerge in the future.

A fortunate few tour the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art U.S. Army medical facility that is providing rehabilitation to service members and others who have sustained amputations, burns or functional limb loss. The facility’s efforts to return patients to the highest levels of physical, psychological and emotional well-being leave the visitors both awed and inspired.

With the sun starting to sink in the West, elegantly clad attendees make their way to the Lone Star Ballroom for the 2014 William J. Gies Awards for Vision, Innovation and Achievement. As in previous years, the accomplishments of this year’s recipients speak volumes about the ingenuity and dedication of our community.

Quotes of the Day

“I have had the privilege of excellent mentors, who became collaborators, colleagues and friends. … At all times I keep the earliest lessons from my mentors and from ADEA in mind and heart—continuing to ask, what do our institutions and our communities need from us?”
Lisa Tedesco, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Academic Affairs – Graduate Studies and Dean of the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies at Emory University and winner of a 2014 Gies Award for Outstanding Achievement, making her acceptance speech.

“Remember, site visitors are our friends. They’re us. You want to make their job as easy as you can.”
William Dodge, D.D.S., Dean, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Dental School, one of three schools that shared their experiences using the new Commission on Dental Accreditation standards to prepare their accreditation Self-Study Reports.

“In the midst of great geopolitical, demographic and economic changes, our country has to make a decision: Are we going to turn to each other, or on each other?”
Van Jones, cohost of CNN’s Crossfire, speaking at the Political Spotlight plenary session.


With their bags packed for a midday departure, many attendees make their way to the theater for the Closing Plenary. They hear from Rishi Desai, M.D., an infectious disease physician who traded in his job as an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be part of the revolution in online learning at the Khan Academy. In the hours that follow, some head for home while others take in one last educational session or seize the opportunity to chat with colleagues they rarely see.

In the late afternoon, members of ADEA’s governing bodies make their way to the third floor of the convention center for the Closing Session of the ADEA House of Delegates. The results of the vote for the new Chair-elect are announced (it’s Tufts’ Dental Dean Huw Thomas, B.D.S., M.S., Ph.D.), and outgoing Chair Steve Young gives his final address. His words bring to mind two people who made their presence felt in San Antonio, not through proximity, but through the power of their ideas. The first is Clayton Christensen, D.B.A., M.B.A., M.Phil. Dr. Christensen was mentioned by Steve in passing during his speech and by several other speakers earlier in the session. Dr. Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation took center stage at this year’s ADEA Signature Series and appears to have played a role in drawing a record 200 people to San Antonio a day prior to the meeting’s official opening to explore this powerful idea in the context of health professions education.

The other individual is John Medina, Ph.D. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people mention last year’s Opening Plenary speaker and his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Apparently those of you who bought the book also read it and were excited by the prospect of hearing this year’s speakers further explore this fascinating topic.

I could say more, but I think I’ve conveyed just how rich and rewarding the ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition can be. If I haven’t motivated you to join us in 2015 in my adopted hometown of Boston, perhaps the theme of next year’s gathering will: Igniting Minds, Unlocking Potential. Hope to see you there.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: