On Wednesday, the first class graduates from Columbia’s newly revamped dual degree program in dental medicine and public health. As a member of that first class, any student would have to work with flexibility and focus to chart a course in a program straddling two schools.
But as the only member of that first class, Tener Huang had the unique challenge—and opportunity—of being the student who not only tested out but helped shape a brand-new program aimed to fill the need for dentists who address dental care and oral health from the perspective of population health.
When Tener first came to the College of Dental Medicine, she had no plans to pursue anything other than a traditional DDS degree. She planned to finish in four years, complete a residency, then settle into private practice. But when she was in her third year, she was invited to an information session on the newly revamped DDS/MPH program, and the presentation made her change her course.
What was once a four-year program in dental medicine with public health courses squeezed into the evenings was newly reconfigured into a rigorous five-year program with two semesters devoted to public health. Huang had long had a commitment to service work—she volunteered both through her church and in college—and this program seemed to offer the ability to bring that focus to her dentistry career.
“Two weeks later I applied, two weeks later I interviewed, two weeks later I was admitted, and two weeks later I started at Mailman,” says Tener. “It was a whirlwind, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
The program helped her envision her work as an extension of her dentist’s office. “I always wanted to do more for my patients than just see them one at a time and fix cavities,” says Tener. “There are just so many barriers to oral health and people who can’t access dentistry. Internationally, but even in our own backyards—in Washington Heights, there are children who can’t access oral health care. In this program, I really saw what we could do to change that.”
Tener took every opportunity to explore ways to make an impact on public health and dentistry. She coordinated the dental program at Columbia’s Head Start, a federally funded child development program; made a visit to the Dominican Republic and two to Cambodia to treat underserved populations; was a research assistant on three projects; was a teaching assistant; presented at a continuing medical education course; and also managed to lead a few student organizations. Allegedly, she also found time to sleep.
As the only student in the program, she knew she had exceptional opportunities offered to her. Her drive to take advantage of all of them impressed the faculty and set the bar high for future students.
“Tener not only fulfilled the requirements of the program but did so in such a way as to establish the standard by which subsequent trainees are expected to perform,” says Burton L. Edelstein, a professor at the College of Dental Medicine who also heads its Section of Social and Behavioral Sciences and its Division of Behavioral Sciences.
Under Edelstein, who helped shape the oral health and dental care provisions in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, she studied the lobbying process and how to influence dental policy change. When another professor, Sally Findley, started working on a book about community health workers and their impact on immigrant populations, Tener asked to do an independent study. Her drive impressed Findley, a professor of clinical population and family health and professor of clinical sociomedical sciences. It also inspired other public health students.
“Tener probed into her own family background to find out about their immigrant experiences,” says Findley. “She was the lightning rod that got everyone else involved.”
Tener is excited to graduate from the program and start her residency next year at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in pediatric dentistry, a specialty she thinks dovetails well with public health policy. But the young woman who once pictured herself in private practice is not sure what she wants to do after her residency now that she sees so many opportunities on the horizon. She would like to continue working with community health workers, possibly as a dental director, or go into academia, where her writing can help impact policy on oral health care. No matter what, she says, she will never see a patient without considering the larger community and global context.