Plenty of Fire, Surprisingly Little Ice: Minds Ignite in Boston

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic shares what you may have experienced or might have missed at this year’s ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in Boston.

When we chose the venue for this year’s annual gathering, we never anticipated that Boston would be making headlines this winter—not just for its famed sports teams but for its unprecedented snowfall—a record 110 inches as of late March.

Yet, despite the mounds of snow still hemming in parked cars and filling empty lots, the city welcomed ADEA members with clear sidewalks, comfortable temperatures and mostly sunny skies. As CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger commented at the start of Monday’s Political Spotlight, it felt good to get out of Washington, DC, which ironically was hit with a winter storm that stopped the city in its tracks while many of us (including me) were trying to get out of town. But all that was quickly forgotten as this year’s ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition unfolded.

The meeting achieved its goal of “Igniting Minds, Unlocking Potential” right from the start, thanks to the phenomenal success of this year’s ADEA GoDental Workshop and Recruitment Fair for Predental Students and Advisors. A record 500 students, advisors and parents from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico traveled to Boston to gain insight into the application process and meet admissions officers from more than 40 dental schools and representatives from other related organizations. Attendees—whether teens from local colleges, international students or adults pursuing a second career—mobbed the advisors, sought guidance from current dental students and posed for countless photographs.

Boston’s status as college town extraordinaire gets some of the credit for the uniquely high turnout at this year’s recruitment fair—more than double what we’ve seen in previous years—but credit for the electrifying energy in the convention hall rests squarely with the organizers. They introduced two new features that made this year’s event especially memorable: an inspiring keynote address by forensic pathologist Dr. Joye Carter, the first African American physician to be appointed Chief Medical Examiner in the United States, and one-on-one consultations with our colleague Paul Garrard, whose annual presentation on financing a dental education is always a big hit.

Saturday also featured a full roster of activities for ADEA members who were in town for the main event. Attendees who wanted to venture offsite were faced with the difficult choice of which outstanding dental school to tour: Harvard’s, Tufts’ or Boston University’s. From what I overheard in the halls later that day, visitors to each of these schools were seriously impressed.

Many also arrived early to take part in the 2015 ADEA Signature Series Program, which once again received rave reviews from participants. The discussion centered around the role institutional climate plays in fostering professional development, and representatives of two exemplary faculty development programs—one at Boston University and the other at New York University—shared their strategies for staving off what Harvard researcher Dr. Kiernan Mathews dubbed “post-tenure stress disorder (PTSD).”

The symposium was the first of several events that helped spread the word about creative approaches to faculty development. Saturday’s Faculty Development Marketplace lit a fire under presenters, who had five short minutes to explain what is happening on their campuses. Listeners could also feel the heat on Sunday as more than 100 people squeezed in for Mentoring Best Practices for Early Career Faculty during a dynamic New Ideas Session.

The main action kicked off on Sunday morning, with the Opening Plenary featuring an engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Adam Steltzner, who led the team charged with landing the Curiosity rover on Mars, talked about innate human curiosity as a driver of education. As expected, he wowed the audience with images of Mars and tales of overcoming the technical challenges facing his team to create a successful landing. But the most amazing revelation in Steltzner’s presentation was rooted in the far more familiar terrain of academia.

Steltzner explained that his journey to earning a Ph.D. was not propelled by high school courses in advanced math or the other academic pursuits we normally associate with high achievers in the sciences. Steltzner left high school intending to make a life as a rock musician, but the movement of the stars piqued his curiosity and literally changed the course of his life. He enrolled in community college and eventually found himself on the path to a Ph.D., thanks to a professor who conferred what Steltzner called “a glee at the prospect of being able to understand the universe.”

“Curiosity is the spark. Exploration, the fire that burns from it,” he told the audience, reminding any of us who might have forgotten that the connections that form between students and teachers can make all the difference when it comes to igniting minds and unlocking potential.

Not surprisingly, the other plenaries also proved to be highlights of this year’s Annual Session. ESPN SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn drew a large audience to the Evening Plenary on Gender Issues: Discourse and Dessert. Although her talk focused on her professional journey as a woman breaking into the top echelons of a male-dominated field, her advice spoke to everyone in the room. She stressed the importance of being genuine and true to oneself, especially in environments that tempt people to compromise their values in order to get ahead.

“If you can work at a place where you’re smiling and laughing—not all the time, but more than you are stressed out and feeling sick to your stomach—that’s a win,” she said with characteristic candor.

During the Q and A that followed, ADEA Chair of the Board of Directors, Dr. Lily Garcia, asked Cohn what makes her want to mentor young people. “I’m moved when I see that fire,” she said, echoing this year’s theme.

CNN’s Gloria Borger delivered the signature blend of humor and insight we’ve come to expect from the Political Spotlight, but without a partisan bent and with a high ratio of optimism to cynicism. She asserted that presidential campaigns are fundamentally about hope, suggested that Hillary Clinton would benefit from a good primary opponent, and elicited laughs with a joke (attributed to Sen. Dianne Feinstein) about Jeb Bush’s run for the presidency. “Now we know what the Bush family means by No Child Left Behind,” she quipped.

Speaking about the new Republican majority in Congress as Democrat Barack Obama finishes his second term, Borger admitted that she was one of those people—“Call me Pollyanna”—who thought divided government would motivate both sides to work together to prove they could govern. Her prescription for getting around partisan gridlock? “The American public needs to say, ‘We want to elect people differently,’ and vote people out of office who don’t want to do that,” she asserted. She pointed to the California and Louisiana primary systems as examples of how states could make elections more competitive. “Everybody [regardless of party affiliation] is thrown into the same bucket and you see who survives,” she said.

The Closing Plenary was perhaps the most thought provoking. Cultural historian Sarah Lewis, who is currently a W. E. B. DuBois Research Institute Fellow at Harvard, shared some of the insights she has gained from studying what common factors allow individuals to accomplish exceptional things. I won’t try to summarize her research here, but suffice it to say their paths were neither obvious nor easy. If you are an educator interested in how people learn from their failures or in how to create environments where students feel safe taking risks and persisting toward mastery, you will want to read her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery. Given the long line at the book signing following her talk, I suspect many of you are doing just that.

The ADEA Annual Session Program Committee, chaired by Dr. Sharon Siegel of Nova Southeastern University College of Dental Medicine, also did a remarkable job of assembling a cornucopia of educational offerings. The topics presented ran the gamut. We learned about avatars and anatomy, implants and IPE, primary care and problem solving, global and women’s health, as well as OSCEs, professionalism, lasers and social media—and believe me when I say this just scratches the surface! Sessions on admissions practices, Graduate Medical Education (GME), electronic health records, changes to documenting diversity, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were also available, thanks to the efforts of staff at the ADEA Policy Center and others. With a Supreme Court case that could gut the health care law very much in the news this winter, the ACA session, always popular, was packed.

Attendees also had exciting opportunities for hands-on learning. They used video to refine their communication skills and hi-fidelity manikins to practice responding to clinic emergencies. They also received targeted advice on practical matters such as how to submit high quality manuscripts to the Journal of Dental Education or session abstracts for next year’s meeting. (Please do so here before June 1!)

Turnout was excellent for the 2015 William J. Gies Awards for Vision, Innovation and Achievement, whose awardees exemplify what can happen when the potential within our individual and institutional members is unlocked. The annual awards ceremony gives our community a chance to honor those who dedicate their careers to educating students and work to create a new health care norm where oral health is inextricably linked to overall health. The Procter & Gamble Company was the premier sponsor of this year’s awards, one of which went to our very own Jeanne Craig Sinkford, D.D.S., Ph.D., Senior Scholar-in-Residence at ADEA, for her outstanding vision as a dental educator.

The dental hygiene community appeared especially energized by this year’s meeting, in part thanks to the presence of Esther Wilkins, RDH, D.M.D. Some of you may not be acquainted with Esther, but rest assured, she is known to all who have studied dental hygiene. The Tufts University School of Dental Medicine graduate made an indelible mark on the profession by authoring Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist. This foundational text, first published in 1959, is currently in its 11th edition. The book is so widely used that dental hygienists identify their educational cohort not by graduation year, but by the color of the cover that adorns their edition of Esther’s book!

Presentations on curricular change as part of a session on Transforming Dental Hygiene Education also generated excitement. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association, in collaboration with AAL, has initiated a pilot program to develop innovative learning domains and curricula that could serve as transformative models for dental hygiene programs throughout the country. Judging from the presentations by program directors from Miami-Dade College, which prepares students for traditional private practice employment, and Eastern Washington University, whose curriculum is geared to the broader scope of practice allowed within that state, curricular change and innovation in dental hygiene may be as diverse as it has been in dentistry.

Ample food for thought was also offered by three Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors Symposia—one of which focused on self-directed group learning, another on faculty mentoring, and a third on financing dental education. I caught part of this last symposium, where Drs. Nader Nadershahi, Cecile Feldman and Mike Alfano explained the challenges that lie before us. Nader provided a thorough overview of where we stand today; Cecile put our challenges in the broader context of higher education, academic medicine and biomedical research; and Mike supplied some provocative ideas for everyone’s consideration. Mike believes the current model of dental education is not sustainable, a quandary he framed by asking, “Are we like Kodak?” Kodak was a wonderfully innovative company for decades, Mike noted, but filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. “They had the knowledge to invent the future of images…but Kodak missed the opportunity to reinvent itself.”

I sincerely hope the answer to Mike’s question about dental education is “no,” and believe that discussions such as those that occur at ADEA meetings are key to avoiding such a fate. Indeed, as I explained in my address to the ADEA House of Delegates, there is much to be proud of and much to look forward to in dental education.

As many of you know, each year during the Opening of the House of Delegates, we observe a moment of silence for ADEA members who have passed away. This year, we were especially sad to note the passing of two dental students. Jiwon Lee was a talented student at Columbia University. She served as President of the American Student Dental Association, and we all thought that one day she would help to lead our profession. The killing of Deah Barakat, a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, along with his wife and her sister, also shook our community to the core. Deah left a legacy through the fund he helped create to support a dental relief mission for Syrian refugees. I was pleased to tell the House of Delegates that more than half a million dollars had been donated to the fund as of early March. Despite the profound grief that accompanies these tragedies, I am left with a feeling of gratitude that young people of this caliber are choosing dentistry as their profession.

At the Closing of the House of Delegates, Lily Garcia shared highlights of her year as Chair and told us that these experiences confirmed her belief in the importance of what we do as educators. If you have had the pleasure of meeting Lily, it won’t surprise you to hear that she enlivened this year’s meeting with her legendary wit. She frequently went off script, telling us that no one has better comedic timing than her predecessor, Dr. Steve Young, and informing the crowd that her Dean at Iowa, Dr. David Johnsen, would be giving dance lessons in the exhibition hall. She also did a terrific job of acknowledging the generosity of our event sponsors. “It’s all about relationships,” she said in speaking of ADEA’s corporate partners. “You can’t thank these people enough.”

We also heard from incoming Chair of the Board Dr. Huw Thomas, Dean of the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. In his address to the House of Delegates, Huw regaled us in Welsh (his native tongue), told us he has a passion for rugby and raised some of the issues he would like to explore during his term. These included the growth of group practices and corporate dentistry, new workforce models, student debt and third-party reimbursement. Regarding this last item, he advised, “Let’s not let the next train leave the station.”

I’m sure we will consider these and many other issues when we meet next year in Denver to explore the theme “Shaping Tomorrow, Together.” I look forward to seeing you there.

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