Dental pipeline adds to diverse and well-prepared student body

As an offensive lineman on East Carolina University’s football team, Travish Hicks was tasked with defending the quarterback—a challenging assignment. During a recent three-day workshop at the ECU School of Dental Medicine, Hicks faced a different kind of challenge. He had to stitch nylon sutures through foam material to simulate suturing the gums of a dental patient.

“I was surprised that suturing is much harder than it looks,” said Hicks, who graduated from ECU in May with a Bachelor of Science in university studies and a concentration in health and wellness. He currently works part-time and plans to attend a post-baccalaureate program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro this fall.

Dr. Cheryl Serio, clinical associate professor in the Department of General Dentistry, discusses the surface area of a molar with a participant.

Hicks and 39 other graduates of North Carolina universities and current students took part last week in the School of Dental Medicine’s Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists (PTD) summer program to learn more about dentistry and dental school. The program partners the dental school with other educational institutions and professional organizations to provide educational opportunities for academically qualified individuals from historically underrepresented groups, disadvantaged backgrounds and underserved areas of the state.

The workshop was presented by staff, faculty, students and residents, who packed each day with hands-on sessions in Ross Hall labs and touched on nearly every aspect of the dental school experience, including the application process, student life and the financial investment required.

Administrators said the program offers each participant an in-depth view of the ECU dental school’s model and vision and helps provide the school with a diverse and well-prepared student body.

“Whether it was prepping a tooth in the simulation lab, bending a wire during an orthodontic lecture, or using Dexter heads to learn about radiographs, this program helped me gain a better understanding of how much dental students are required to know to competently treat their patients,” said Hicks.

Dr. Stevan Thompson, division director of oral-maxillofacial surgery, instructed program participants in suturing in the pre-clinical technique lab. “Dentistry is a procedure-oriented profession that requires hand-eye coordination,” he said. “It takes a lot of practice and attention to the details.”

Since the 2013 inception of Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists, 41 participants have enrolled in ECU’s dental school. Nine of 50 students in the incoming class of 2023 were PTD participants.  

The school’s director of admissions, Lamont Lowery, and his team coordinate PTD. They spend a lot of time on the road in North Carolina attending career fairs and talking with students who want to blend a passion for health care and service in a profession.

“Our school’s mission is to educate students who want to practice dentistry in North Carolina,” said Lowery. “We’re on the lookout for students who have a true interest in improving health care and for working in underserved communities—perhaps their home community. PTD gives participants a great chance to gauge their level of commitment, learn how to apply for school, and plug into a support network.”

A workshop participant practices preparing a molar for a filling on a dental model.

David Barrett, a 34-year-old high school science teacher in Cumberland County and alumnus of Appalachian State University, said a volunteer experience at The Care Clinic in Fayetteville ignited his passion for dentistry and guided him to the PTD program. He was apprehensive about attending the program due to his age.

“During those three days, I subtly observed dental students and how they interacted with faculty and staff,” said Barrett. “What impressed me most was how they talked with and treated each other as if they were family. Everyone made me feel welcome, and we learned a wealth of information while having a great time.”    

Caroline Gloster is a rising senior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. As vice president of the Undergraduate Student National Dental Association (USNDA) on her campus, she has set high academic goals for herself in order to be admitted to dental school.

Gloster said she attended PTD to understand first-hand how the ECU dental school is structured and to see what the school could offer her. Ultimately, she was pleased with the program and said it increased her passion for dentistry.

She was also happy to meet members of ECU’s USNDA. “Being that I am the proud vice president of USNDA at North Carolina A&T, I was able to make plans to collaborate with those students in the near future,” she said.

Hicks said, “As a college football player at ECU, I always desired to become a dentist but didn’t know exactly the steps needed to get there. As with most athletes, I felt that my timeline wasn’t where it needed to be in terms of preparation for dental school. The Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists Program helped me realize that dental students are of various ages with both traditional and nontraditional paths. It inspired me and confirmed that there is no better time than now to pursue my dreams of becoming a dentist.”

Preparing Tomorrow’s Dentists is a partnership between the ECU School of Dental Medicine, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s Pre-Professional Scholars Program, the Old North State Dental Society, and North Carolina Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

The program offers participants an in-depth view of the ECU dental school’s model and vision and helps provide the school with a diverse and well-prepared student body.