Research was foreign to me during my undergraduate studies. Yet in dental school, where it parallels future procedures, research became more interesting to me. Appreciating the importance of a project for the sake of its impact on practice in the “real world” lit a fire within me to be continuously involved in research. This excitement led to my participation in five projects to date. If you are passionate about something, success will follow. But how do you juggle five projects?
First off, start out small. Just as a dentist decides which daily operational activities to be involved in, so too can student researchers determine to what degree they are involved in a research project. This is the case at Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. Faculty mentors and students collaborate on projects tailored to both accommodate and stretch student researchers.
In high school, I remember hearing the phrase “you’re student athletes, academics come first.” This concept similarly applies to student researchers. We were accepted into dental school to learn to become dentists first and foremost. Any extracurricular activities must take the back burner if they hamper progress toward graduating. Therefore, faculty often will find ways to accommodate hectic schedules. Sharing with mentors your schedule of exams, practicals, boards or any other circumstance can help them feel included rather than blindsided. Last-minute excuses for being unable to take measurements or be involved in a surgical procedure are not well received. It’s better to be upfront. Upon graduating, dentists work within a network of colleagues. Colleagues communicate, so it’s helpful to establish lines of communication now within research.
This isn’t to say research is without setbacks, frustrations or complications. Research may push you outside your comfort zone. From the get-go, I was involved on a project studying bone fillers. This meant I had to know how to perform the surgical procedure to create defects in rat skulls. I was therefore responsible for carrying it out. And to think I had nearly passed out while shadowing a periodontist!
Another difficulty is fitting research into your already chaotic schedule. This requires a higher level of time management. Whether you’re a list-type or “fly by the seat of your pants” type of person, you will most assuredly develop wiser methods to appropriate your time. Overcoming feelings of inadequacy or scheduling obstacles are just a few of the ways research will stretch and improve you as an individual.
Working side-by-side with mentors on projects is truly enjoyable. My understanding of the scope of dentistry has grown immensely. I wholeheartedly encourage each and every one of you to consider becoming involved in a project on your campus. Your appreciation for the profession will grow. Your understanding of the efforts researchers undergo will increase. And you just might emerge from the project with new talents and a whole new level of comfort.
~Spencer Blackham, Southern Illinois ’17