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Civilian professor’s ABGD certification sparks new interest in what was once ‘military only’ program

Drs. Natasha Crespo, Linda Cheng, Bill Wathen and Jeremy Fike
Along with support from faculty, Dr. Linda Cheng garnered some interest for ABGD certification as she
prepped for her exams. From left to right: Drs. Natasha Crespo, Cheng, Bill Wathen and Jeremy Fike.


In the world of military dentistry, certification from the American Board of General Dentistry is the quintessential “be-all-end-all” to a serviceperson’s dental career. When you consider that an entire two-year residency program is needed to prep military members for this exam, it should come as no surprise that it allows military dentists to climb the ranks, benefit from increased pay and achieve an increased level of respect in their field.

In the civilian world, it reaps almost no financial rewards, is relatively disregarded and in some circles is virtually unknown.

That is perhaps, until now.

Dr. Linda Cheng, assistant professor in the Department of General Dentistry, recently challenged the American Board of General Dentistry in Chicago and succeeded on the first try. She is now the first civilian at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry to achieve this certification. As of now, just two faculty members—Dr. Charles Wakefield, professor and director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency program, and Dr. Kelly Kofford, director of the Oral Diagnosis Clinic in the Department of Diagnostic Sciences—hold the designation. Both challenged the ABGD during their time in the military.

What’s more, Cheng is the first civilian in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to tackle the ABGD program. When you consider that just two or three civilians in the entire country and just 60 or so military personnel seek this certification each year, it’s quite a feat.

Diplomate status within the ABGD can be sought after a two-year postdoctoral general dentistry residency, completion of a one-year postdoctoral general dentistry residency with minimum of 600 hours of continuing education courses or mastership with the Academy of General Dentistry is attained.

During the 19 months since Wakefield issued his former resident the challenge to seek ABGD board certification, others have taken notice of Cheng’s efforts, including dental students and residents. It’s a small spark but perhaps one that is poised to spread throughout the TAMHSC-BCD community, as the importance of evidenced-based dentistry takes hold in faculty and students.

Motivation from Within

Why would Cheng want to pursue ABGD certification, considering it entails years of studying, hours of intense, interrogation-like oral exams and offers little, if any, financial rewards to the average civilian?

“You do this because you’ve got the inner fire,” says Wakefield, who took the ABGD exam during his time as an Army colonel and has since served as an examiner on the ABGD. “You do it out of professional and personal respect for yourself because you want to be the best you can,” he adds.

For Cheng, the benefits are by no means monetary.

“As a civilian I’m not promised anything financial in the end,” she says. “I just get so much out of it.”

The process was so intense it forced Cheng to maintain a current knowledge base, an extremely valuable asset in the world of evidenced-based dentistry. The ABGD certification, which requires 125 hours of continuing education every five years, is essentially a means to an end. And for Cheng, that means the ability to stay current in her teaching and practice, which allows her to offer only the best to her students and patients.

Dr. Kelly Kofford and Dr. Charles Wakefield
Dr. Kelly Kofford and Dr. Charles Wakefield, who have served as
ABGD examiners, both received their certification during previous
military careers.

A Broader Influence

Dr. Jeremy Fike, who graduated TAMHSC-BCD with his dental degree this May, says he first learned about the ABGD certification last fall, when Cheng was his fourth-year teacher. He started asking her questions about the exam after seeing her flip through study manuals and textbooks.

While Fike still has an AEGD residency at Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center in Temple ahead of him, challenging the board is something he is considering for the future.

“By the time you get to graduation you see the possibility to learn more things,” Fike says. “You try to become as perfect as possible but then you realize there are so many more things you can learn and get better in.”

After seeing the effect the ABGD preparation had on Cheng’s knowledge base and mastery of her practice, Fike’s taken board certification into consideration—but advanced training in general dentistry is needed to even begin the process.

Former AEGD resident Dr. Natasha Crespo, who received her dental degree from TAMHSC-BCD in 2010 and her certificate of completion of the AEGD residency in 2011, has also received Wakefield’s urgings to one day challenge the board. Cheng has sat down with Crespo to show her the study materials on the ABGD website.

“An ABGD dentist is someone who has dedicated themselves to a higher standard beyond the average practitioner,” Crespo says. “The exam is an intense experience and requires that you know the ‘why’ behind everything we do as dental practitioners. It requires that you be current on techniques, materials and research,” she adds.

Show of Support

Cheng didn’t exactly have the odds stacked in her favor when she took on the ABGD challenge. While military personnel challenging the board have an entire culture dedicated to the exam, the average civilian has to go it alone.

Luckily, Cheng had support along the way from colleagues and trusted advisers. Although his own board exam was years prior, Cheng had Dr. Wakefield to thank for his trademark “mock” board exams throughout the semester, in which he would fire off questions at students—her included. Dr. Sandra McCarthy, associate professor of restorative sciences, lent her expertise with partial design reviews. And Dr. Bill Wathen, associate professor in general dentistry who served in the Air Force, stepped in to cover Cheng’s clinic times while she left town for her exams.

Wathen, who left the military before the exam was required, said while ABGD certification is the equivalent of seeking a specialty, it is by no means based on ego.

“There is this thing inside us that says, ‘I don’t want to be lacking with a difficult decision,’” he says.

Though Wathen never challenged the ABGD, he lauds the program’s ability to help dentists achieve a high level of competency in their practice.

“There are tracks you can follow to achieve a level of competence above the ordinary,” Wathen says of the ABGD certification. “The people who have achieved it in the civilian world have a passion for being the best they can be.”

Kofford also was on hand to offer support. As a former examiner on the ABGD and Army colonel, he understands the sacrifices involved in board certification.

“I just can’t imagine doing it as a civilian,” Kofford says. “It’s a true commitment; you really have to be dedicated.”