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5 October 2021
Mouths & Mindsets: New UWC Dentistry Dean Aims To Help Fix Smiles & Communities

Dentistry isn’t just about looking at teeth - it’s about considering health in a holistic sense, taking into account environments and communities, and adopting evidence-based approaches to help people. Fortunately for the University of the Western Cape (UWC), that’s new Dentistry Dean Professor Veerasamy (Jeff) Yengopal’s specialty. 

“Dentistry is often seen as isolated - a kind of health island, cut off from the mainland of the body and the rest of the environment,” he said. “At university, Dentistry is often like a different country, taught in separate buildings to other health and community sciences - or even on entirely different campuses. But dentistry has always been about more than just the mouth. Oral health is part of general health - and general health is part of life. We need to think bigger, and more holistically, if we want to make a difference.”

Prof Yengopal comes to UWC from the University of the Witwatersrand, where he served as Head of Community Dentistry for many years. His area of interest includes child oral health, HIV/AIDS, evidence-based dentistry and dental epidemiology. With a string of qualifications to his name - BChD (UWC), MChD in Community Dentistry (Stellenbosch University), BSc Honours in Epidemiology from (University of Stellenbosch Business School), and PhD in Dental Health / Community Dentistry (UWC) - and a flurry of publications, he has established himself as an expert in evidence-based healthcare, systematic reviews, and meta-analysis.

“Over the years, dentistry has changed a lot in some ways. In the aesthetic, digital, high-tech sense, there’s been a lot of change. We have tools and techniques that weren’t available many years ago - but they’re not accessible to most people (particularly poor people). A very small percentage of our population can afford those things. And dentistry has also not changed much - we have a high disease burden, communities that can’t afford treatment, students not prepared to serve those communities. That’s something I’d like to try to change.”

That’s high on his agenda: exposing students to the realities of community dentistry - and helping communities lower their disease burden at the same time. 

He also wants to help the School of Dentistry attain global recognition. It may be Africa’s largest dental school - but there’s only so much one school can do. 

“We’re too insular in our thinking sometimes,” he explained. “Dentistry is one of the most expensive fields when it comes to training, and when it comes to providing services at a primary healthcare level. So if we can partner with other schools, or other disciplines, or international partners, we can all accomplish so much more. The world has gone global - and we can work with and collaborate with the best.”

That begins at home - his most important job as Dean will be to foster a culture of collaboration and openness.

“Academia can be slow to change - many of us stay in our jobs for decades at a time. So we may want to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them - the way we were taught. But times have changed. The way we speak to students, teach them and treat them - that must change as well. We need to engage them in ways that encourage them to reach their potential, rather than as inferiors. And that goes for our colleagues as well. When we empower and respect others, we find ourselves empowered as well.”

Prof Yengopal will take up his duties from 4 October 2021, ushering in a new chapter for the School.

“UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry has the potential to be a global player or a local force for community upliftment,” Prof Yengopal says. “But if we want to be both, we need to look at fostering a culture of collaboration and openness - and support. The world has changed. We need to change with it - and we need to do it together. Remember, dentistry is about more than mouths - it’s about mindsets as well. And if we can change those, we can change the world.”

Coming Home - And Giving Back

Prof Yengopal is no stranger to the University of the Western Cape - it’s where he earned both his undergraduate degree and (25 years later) his doctorate. But he learned more than just dentistry during his time at the University.

“I hail from a small town called Tongaat in KwaZulu-Natal - and I was a product of apartheid social engineering,” he said. “It’s only through my exposure and opportunities when I came to UWC that my eyes and ears - and my mentality and my thinking - opened up. So I’m very grateful to UWC for giving me that opportunity to grow - and to come back, to give back, is a dream come true.”

After leaving UWC (the first time), he ran his own dental practice, and made a good living. But he needed to stimulate his mind as well. So in 2000 he returned to studying, this time at the University of Stellenbosch... in a different part of the same building he’d studied at before, only this time it was open to students of colour as well. And that opened his eyes further to the importance of transformation.

“We were the first non-whites training as registrars within the speciality of Community Dentistry, and it was very different than before,” he recalls. “It actually made me angry - to see how much more resources there were than we’d had access to before. And now that everything was open and there was democracy, we as students had access to more resources, that didn’t mean that suddenly the cycle was broken. Real transformation would take effort - and I made it my mission in life to be part of that.” 

UWC also taught him another lesson: that leadership is about helping people get to where they’re going. In some cases, that means literally - as he learned on his very first day at the University.

“It was a long day of anatomy lessons (I didn’t even know we did Anatomy in dentistry, and I’d never seen a cadaver, so it was quite traumatic,” he recalled. “I was waiting at the light pole by the Admin block for my lift - and waiting, and waiting. A gentleman came by with white hair and a blue suit, and he said, ‘You look lost.’ I told him I was waiting for a lift, and he said he’d take me. Next thing I know he pulls up in a nice blue BMW, and he drops me off, and I thank him, and off he goes. Two weeks later, I realised that that gentleman was the Rector, Prof Richard van der Ross.” 

Now, many years later, that’s the kind of leader he aims to be. Not one with a nice BMW (he has a pretty decent motorcycle, though), but one who’s happy with what he’s achieved, and wants to help others find their way.

“I want my staff - and my students - to be better than me,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish a lot, but they can accomplish so much more. They must do so much more. If I can get them to see that they can do that, and I can help them along the way, then I’ll have done my job. The rest is up to them.”