Dentistry is a very hands-on subject - and in many ways, it lends itself more to training clinicians, not academic researchers. But the University of Western Cape’s current crop of fifth year BChD (Bachelor of Dental Surgery) students is bucking that trend.
This year a trio of students won a competition for the presentation of undergraduate research at the meeting of the South African Division of the International Association of Dental Research (IADR) held earlier this year at Wits.
Wenzile Mjoli, Raeesa Dladla and Thobeka Mbhele presented research on their peers’ confidence in performing procedures after completing their pre-clinical techniques course - and won the chance to present their findings at the global meeting of the IADR in London next year.
Professor Greta Geerts, Deputy Dean for Research and Higher Degrees in the Faculty of Dentistry, explains that the competition prize at the South African level pays for one student’s travel, accommodation and registration - so the Faculty will try to raise funds to assist the other two students to travel to the London conference.
Geerts says the student trio’s achievement is especially impressive when one realises how difficult it can be to persuade dentistry students to present even a small research report. When dentistry students enroll, their priority is usually to become a practitioner, and their emphasis is not so much on research.
Dentistry students have to study several modules that expose them to research principles, how to do research - and how to do it ethically - and they do explore different areas of research. Usually they do this research among themselves, while some use patient records from clinics.
”Every year we really motivate them to take part in our Faculty Research Day,” says Geerts. “It is often a challenge to have them do that - because it is intimidating to talk in front of their peers and the staff. But, once they have done so it’s an incredible incentive for them to realise they like doing it - and that their research can have an impact.”
The ones who put more effort into the Research Day competition than is necessary just to pass, are often stimulated to go further.
“It is a very important breeding ground for future postgraduate students and academics,” says Geerts. “And it’s a good lesson in the possibility of doing meaningful research that doesn’t cost a fortune. You just need to be smart in finding the right topic.”
Usually the students do this research in their fourth year of study, though the study of the trio who won this year was relatively time intensive, which is why they presented - and won - this year.
What is really special about this year’s crop of fifth year students is that last year, when they were in their fourth year of study, a different group of four students from the same class won the Faculty Research Day competition, and then went on to win the national IADR undergraduate competition. They travelled to San Francisco earlier this year to present their research on patient experience at the community outreach clinics run by the Faculty of Dentistry.
“So, students from the same class got the prize twice. It has never happened before - and I don’t think it will happen again anytime soon,” Geerts comments proudly.