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Progress Notes

Dr. Robert Spears

Dr. Robert Spears (far right), associate professor
in biomedical sciences and director of the
Student Research Program

Photo by Steven Doll

All you need to know about Spears’ take on mentoring as a mindset

In these Q-and-A sessions, we take a closer look at some pressing topics within the dental profession and just what they mean to Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry. From TAMHSC-BCD initiatives to hot-button questions, we consult the college’s own subject matter experts to get their input.

This issue includes the perspectives of Dr. Robert Spears, recipient of the 2012 National Student Research Group Faculty Mentor Award, given at the American Association for Dental Research annual meeting.

Spears has a unique mindset on mentoring, considering he literally has filled the roles of staff member, student and faculty member since coming to the dental school 26 years ago. The research technician-turned doctoral student-turned associate professor must be on to something, because this year alone, the Predoctoral Student Research Program — made possible by funding from Baylor Oral Health Foundation — churned out more than 20 student presentations at AADR, including two finalists in the Dentsply/Caulk Student Research Group Award Competition, as well as having D4 Kelly Owen serve as NSRG vice president.

In his typical candid, off-the-cuff style, Spears shares a bit more about his teaching style, what makes or breaks a student research program, and even divulges a little-known fact: that before his decades-long career at TAMHSC-BCD, he spent four years in the Texas oil fields, dealing with radiation and explosives on a daily basis. How’s that for perspective?

BDRO: As director of the Predoctoral Student Research Program, what is your goal when it comes to getting students interested in research?

Spears: When a first-year student walks in the door, one of our goals at Baylor is that every student gets exposure to research and its importance. That doesn’t mean every student has to do the research program, but they should know how research impacts them as a clinician.

Research is a mindset. It’s about answering questions. My goal is to impart some of that to students to get them excited about the unknown. You don’t have many ‘aha’ moments in research, but when you do, it’s amazing.

BDRO: Winning the 2012 AADR National Student Research Group Faculty Mentor Award is a huge honor, especially considering it is awarded to just one professor nationwide. It must have something to do with your approach to working with students. What is your teaching and mentoring philosophy?

Spears: I want to be an advocate, an aide.

I take the mentoring aspect very seriously. I look at it as ‘What kind of mentor would I need?’ I want it to be a good experience for the students. I want them to learn about the research, but I also want them to feel good about their accomplishments. I want them to feel like ‘Wow, I published an abstract,’ or ‘I presented at Research and Scholars Day.’ It’s like most things in life. If they like it, they may stick with it.

I look at it as they’re colleagues. The students are going to graduate from here in three years. I try to remove hurdles. Dental school is difficult; we don’t want to make it harder unnecessarily.

BDRO: It sounds like the college had an impressive showing at this year’s National Student Research Group meeting, boasting 23 poster presentations, three oral presentations and biomedical sciences graduate student, Yinshi Ren, the winner of the Hatton Competition. What do these accolades say about TAMHSC-BCD’s research program?

Spears: It’s not just about winning. We had five or six student finalists in the Hatton competition, more than any other campus. We had two in Dentsply/Caulk. It says a lot about the institution, to be the size of the school that we are and have such an amazing research program.

BDRO: What are some of the critical components that can make or break a predoctoral dental research program?

Spears: First is funding. We wouldn’t be able to have 20 or more students do this research, or get to go to national meetings and present their findings, without support from Baylor Oral Health Foundation. Obviously mentor involvement comes next. We can’t do it without mentors. If they didn’t open up their labs, staff and resources, we couldn’t do it. It’s also support from the top down. This is a program that’s valued by the dean, associate deans and research dean.

I think people see the quality of the work that students do when Research and Scholars Day rolls around, that there is an end result to what they’re doing. They see that students are getting the training they need.

If the students and mentors weren’t happy with the program, it would fall apart on itself. It’s the students and mentors that make the program.