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Treasure hunting with TAMBCD’s Dr. Stephen Crane

Dr. Stephen Crane

This seventh-floor storage room is a cache of pre-owned instruments and supplies for student outreach programs because of Dr. Stephen Crane, associate professor in public health sciences and collector extraordinaire.

 Media Resources/Steven Doll

One dental student’s discard becomes another’s piece of lab equipment, as this faculty member shows how a little time and ingenuity can go a long way — and save the school thousands of dollars in the process.

The sun has yet to rise when Dr. Stephen Crane breezes into the Practical Lab to collect his prized cardboard boxes. If he’s lucky, it will be the first of several trips that day to the second-floor space.

On good days, he’ll discover all three boxes brimming with graduating D4s’ discarded dental instruments and supplies, and as the semester draws to an end, there may even be overflow goodies placed on the floor surrounding each. The students know what to do — how could anyone miss the printout with bold, black letters taped neatly to the front of each box, complete with a “wish list” and Crane’s contact information?

He then totes the boxes to his seventh-floor office, empties them and sifts through the contents one by one. Throwaway items get tossed in a rolling dumpster outside his office door, but the treasures — burrs, typodonts, technique metal, ivorine teeth, amalgam and waxing instruments, Jeltrate impression material — get cleaned and stockpiled into a ceiling-high closet in a 6-by-15 storage room a few footsteps away.

Within a few weeks, Crane will revisit the space, pull many of the items off those metal shelves and reuse them for Summer Predental Enrichment Program labs. By August, North Garland High School students in Health Occupations Students of America rotate through the college, where they, too, will gain hands-on experience with the same items — much like what they may one day use if they are accepted into dental school.

Plowing elbow-deep in others’ castoffs may make some cringe, but it makes Crane happy to no end — as it has for the past 10 years.

“I like to do it,” says Crane, associate professor in public health sciences. “I have this thing about stuff being thrown away that I think we can use.

“I might generate a lab activity to use that thing in a year or two. I’m always trying to think of new and different ways to do things that may interest the students. You never know. And I hate to throw it away.”

It all started decades ago, when Crane’s father retrieved a baseball cap abandoned in the street. “Petro-Rod,” the name of an oil and gas company, was embroidered across the top. Underneath it: the words, “Not your average sucker.” The allusion to sucker rods wasn’t lost on Crane’s dad, an oilman himself.

Then there was his father’s pair of threadbare khakis, worn for years until that fateful Sunday afternoon after church when Crane’s mother tossed them in the trash. They didn’t stay there for long.

Crane still keeps with him the photo of his dad in those much-loved khaki pants and Petro-Rod cap — along with the inherited penchant for recovering and reusing.

To date, Crane estimates his efforts have saved the Office of Student Development and Multicultural Affairs approximately $10,000. To him it’s not an issue of recognition; it’s one of common sense, really.

“No one else is going to do it except me, and I feel like it’s something that can be done,” Crane says. “If they don’t put it in my box, it’s going in the trash.”

Take the items recently up for grabs in the sciences building.

“Of course, Dr. Crane went over there,” says Susan Calhoun, administrative assistant in public health sciences. “He was ecstatic when he returned with many treasures. He was especially excited about some discarded Bunsen burners he retrieved. They were so much better than the ones he was using! There again: someone’s garbage, someone’s gems.”

D3 Karen Delaney has assisted Crane in summers past with SPEP lab activities and says this “harvesting” of equipment not only increases potential students’ access to dentistry but also ignites their passion for the profession.

And what about the peculiar items D4s have bestowed upon Crane for safekeeping and reuse?

They’re not outlandish, but there’s not much use for a hooded sweatshirt and Nike baseball cap in a predental classroom. As for the clock radio donated five years ago, all this time it’s been ticking away in an upstairs guest room at Crane’s home.

“I also remember seeing room air freshener and a bar of Ivory soap,” says Crane. “I’m hoping that was not an insinuation of something.”

The Practical Lab closed in mid-June to await the next year’s dental class, but curiosities continue to trickle in, including what may be the strangest yet: a pair of smoke-gray women’s panty hose. Luckily, they’re brand new, still snug in the packaging. Crane already knows what to do with them: “They’re for polishing wax when we are sculpting teeth.”