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Body of research

2011 Hinman Student Research Symposium

From left to right: D3s David Nguyen, Preston Greer,
Allison Fields, Matthew Burks and Ryne Wilson;
biomedical sciences graduate student Anika Voisey; and
Biomedical Sciences Associate Professor Dr. Robert Spears.

Photo courtesy Dr. Robert Spears

Summer research isn’t merely a way to pass the time between May and August

It’s been more than a year since D3 Allison Fields participated in the Predoctoral Student Research Program, but the impact of the experience isn’t lost on her. Since then, Fields — one of six Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry students to present at the 2011 Hinman Student Research Symposium Oct. 28-30 in Memphis, Tenn.,— says she’s more appreciative of the research process.

“Participating in research, even though it was only for two months, helped me to realize how much work goes into making small steps in the progression of science,” says Fields. “It’s these small steps that lead to larger discoveries that are very important to the clinical dentist.”

It’s a fair assessment to say that Fields’ mindset toward newly published findings — as well as her approach to course work — has evolved since summer 2010 when she participated in the research program.

“I feel like I'm more receptive to research articles in JADAThe Journal of the American Dental Association — and other journals I get in the mail because I know all of the work that went into just a three-page article,” Fields says.

“Participating in research also helps me to have a more well-rounded dental education, especially concerning evidence-based dentistry,” she adds. “We have been taught how to analyze research articles in our EBD discussions, but knowing a little more about research has put more meaning into reading and analyzing the articles.”

Evidence of expanding interest

Glowing reviews like Fields’ may parallel a trend: increasing participation in the college’s Predoctoral Student Research Program. Dr. Robert Spears, associate professor in biomedical sciences, says for the 12 years he’s overseen the program, typically 30 dental students participate. By contrast, there were 40 participants in 2011.

“It’s the highest that we’ve had in the program,” says Spears, who attributes interest in recent years to a larger pool of mentors, increased funds to accommodate more dental students and the ability to offer summer stipends. He credits Baylor Oral Health Foundation, which funds the program, and support from Regents Professor Dr. Larry Bellinger, who is associate dean of research and graduate studies, as well as advocacy from the Office of the Dean.

“We’ve seen a steady rise in the number of students that want to participate,” Spears says. After all, the program offers students a chance to generate abstracts, present research to a national audience and receive one-on-one mentoring.

“Students aren’t here to clean test tubes. They’re here to do a specific project,” Spears says, adding that student researchers are expected to work full time assisting a faculty member with an ongoing project.

Participation isn’t limited to the walls of the dental school. Dental students are encouraged to seek outside research opportunities, too.

“I stopped memorizing facts but instead tried to understand the importance — the whys and hows — of things we learn.”
—Shinetin Tzeng, D2

This past summer, six TAMHSC-BCD students became the first at the dental school to intern with the Baylor Research Institute. Then there is the illustrious National Institutes of Health summer fellowship program that has accepted several Dallas dental students as participants over the years.

Shinetin Tzeng, D2, participated in the sought-after NIH fellowship. As she wrapped up the fall semester, she offered her take on the benefits of summer research. For starters, she soaked in the freedom of learning without a textbook in hand.

“I wasn't just memorizing facts as we do in school but was problem solving by gathering information about what all the other researchers in the same field have done in the past, and using what's already known — along with guidance from mentors — to further develop and implement my own research project,” Tzeng says. “Things were not black or white; often the research experiments did not work as we wanted, but it was a great learning process.”

As a result of her experiences, Tzeng has noticed one dramatic change in her approach to her studies.

“I stopped memorizing facts but instead tried to understand the importance — the whys and hows — of things we learn,” she says. 

What lies ahead

By early September, Spears already was gearing up for summer 2012 with student meetings and mentor selections. So far, there aren’t any major changes to the program, but there may be research opportunities in College Station, Texas, and in Houston at the TAMHSC-Institute of Biosciences and Technology.

“It makes for a good summer experience,” Spears says. “I think it gives students a different perspective on dentistry. It helps them realize that many things that enter into dentistry have been through some sort of research.”