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Tufts University School of Dental Medicine
Gerard Kugel, DMD, MS, PhD
Associate Dean of Research
Inside Dentistry (ID): How long have you been with Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, and what changes have you seen take place in dentistry-and the dental school-during that time?
Dr. Gerard Kugel (GK): I started at Tufts University in 1978 as a PhD student, later became a combined DMD/PhD student in 1981, and have been at the school ever since. I’ve been on the faculty now for 20 years and have seen a number of important changes. First, there are many more women entering the dental profession. When I began my career, there were few females, but today, enrollment is about 50%. This has been a very positive change. Second, I’ve also witnessed a change, at least in our school, in what we’re teaching our students. There’s a greater emphasis on practice management and comprehensive patient care. When I was a student, we learned nothing about running the business side of dentistry; whereas now, we offer practice management courses and even have a premier consulting company at the school helping us out. We have improved our comprehensive patient care by instituting a group practice system in our clinics. Third, there is a greater focus on esthetic dentistry. Twenty years ago, we really didn’t attend to esthetics because we concentrated only on the functional aspects of dentistry. Finally, thanks to Tufts’ Dean Lonnie Norris, the fourth major change we have seen is a dramatic increase in research. For instance, we now have a Tissue Engineering Group that is working on basic science research with direct application to the dental practice. We are also taking on a more global look through research affiliations with dental schools around the world.
ID: How has Tufts responded to those changes, and what have been the reactions from students and fellow faculty?
GK: I think that having more females in the profession has been a welcomed and important change for the school and for the field of dentistry at-large. I think the more esthetic-focused courses in the curricula have left some faculty concerned that there would be a de-emphasis on delivering the highest quality functional dentistry services to patients. In response to this, Tufts Dental School has worked very hard to develop a marriage of function and esthetics into its curricula. Naturally, the expansion of our research capabilities and accomplishments has been openly embraced by students, faculty, and dental product companies alike. Students and faculty have a much greater opportunity now to respond to the “what ifs?” in dental science and practice.
ID: There are 56 dental schools in the United States today. In what ways do you think Tufts differentiates itself from the others?
GK: Recent graduates have told me that Tufts is a more “student friendly” dental school. I think it’s because we begin with 2 things: respect for the students and a mission to make each one of them the best dental professional they can be. Better still, we’d like them to see themselves as potential leaders in their profession. I was with a Tufts graduate out in California last month and I asked him why, considering he’d been accepted to other schools, he chose Tufts. He explained that when he visited the school, we made him feel valuable, important, and wanted. He didn’t get that feeling from the other schools. He particularly complimented our Dean of Admissions and Student Affairs, Mark Gonthier, for encouraging that sense about the school. Some of our older alums may harken back to a more traditional academic environment—the “You’re at school to learn, not to have a good time” atmosphere. The new attitude is that we’re going to work hard to make you the best you can be. We want to challenge and inspire you to work your hardest and build teamwork with your classmates, too. Good teamwork is part of running a successful practice, so we try to mentor that behavior. I think we’ve done that pretty well at Tufts.
ID: What challenges do you see Tufts facing that may be similar to, or different from, the challenges being faced by other dental schools today? What is needed to overcome them?
GK: One is the challenge of keeping the curriculum current with practitioners’ increasingly complex needs. We are dealing with a lot of new material—and a lot of old material—that students still need to know. The profession is reeling with new technology, for instance, digital cameras, CAD/CAM, lasers, composites, all-ceramic materials, and what-have-you. In a perfect world, we could teach all the new technologies, but students still require very strong “fundamentals” in dentistry. We only have 4 years, so the challenge we have is to try to figure out what to give them, what not to, and to make it all relevant and practical. At Tufts, our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Dr. Nancy Arbree, has done a wonderful job, and it’s been a lot of work. So, we need dedicated people. The other great challenge that Tufts and other dental schools have is continually improving CE programs so that education doesn’t stop when graduates are handed their diplomas. We need to get them excited about staying abreast of trends and skills in their profession and in research.
ID: In what ways can practicing dentists, our readers—as well as members of the dental industry at large—contribute to the enrichment of dental school education? How is Tufts helping to make such interactions possible?
GK: Well, first of all, I think the dental community at large can be a little more interactive and proactive. We need feedback from the dental community. We need to work with them and get them involved in dental education. This could be simply a matter of having them pursue CE at dental schools, as opposed to taking courses at independent institutes. Dentists can also provide invaluable practical insight to students by coming in and volunteering at dental schools to teach and lecture. Those are the kinds of things I think dental educators working in the practicing community can really do as a service to dental schools. For example, we’ve had a number of members of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, the American Academy of Esthetic Dentistry, and a number of other dental societies work at our school. They are trying to make a difference by coming in and teaching. People in the practicing dental community have to remember that you can’t go to a dental school and suddenly think you can change it immediately. There are certain systems and new faculty training agendas that have been established for a reason; new faculty must be standardized in their teaching techniques. Dental schools can work closely with the dental community; we shouldn’t be adversaries—we have to be partners in dental education.
ID: Is there anything else you would like to comment on?
GK: I think manufacturers can help support dental education by objectively supporting CE programs, as well as reliable and objective research at dental schools. We have a large underserved population in dire need of dental care but who can’t find it or afford it. There are many issues that need to be addressed, and I think that if there were simple solutions, we would have found them. But there aren’t. Many aspects of dental education and oral healthcare are improving, but we still have a long way to go.
Gerard Kugel, DMD, MS, PhD
Associate Dean for Research
Tufts University School of Dental Medicine