Student and Alumni Profiles
On May 18, 2023, Alejandro Salcedo received his DDS from the College of Dental Medicine. We asked him to share a few highlights from his time at Columbia and their impact on his personal and professional development.
What drew you to dentistry and, in particular, to Columbia’s College of Dental Medicine?
I was drawn to dentistry because of its technical aspects and my desire to help others improve their oral health. It is a field that combines art with diagnosing and treating dental problems. I knew it was a profession where I could use my hand skills to bring about change in people’s lives.
And then once I had arrived and could shadow different practicing dentists, I felt even more secure in my decision. All of them urged me to pursue it passionately.
Was there one course or clinical rotation that made a deep impression on you?
The dental emergency rotation was my favorite. It was the most stimulating because you never knew what the patient was going to present with. It was challenging to decipher the etiology of pain, and it was rewarding to relieve the patients of their pain and discomfort. The experience taught me to examine each and every patient comprehensively.
Can you tell us about a project you worked on that had special meaning to you?
I feel fortunate to have worked and studied alongside pediatric residents. I also had the opportunity to coordinate and perform caries risk assessments for numerous families in the Washington Heights community.
The parents I worked with were eager to learn about dental health and demonstrated a significant increase in their knowledge. It was amazing to see our prevention program in action, educating and treating children with severe early-childhood caries. And it was rewarding to give back to the community in which I lived and grew up.
Is there one professor that you would especially like to thank?
I would like to thank my group practice leader, Dr. Elizabeth Odinez-Bortfeld. She was constantly there by my side guiding me through procedures, offering suggestions, and teaching me different methods to solve the same problem.
Even in difficult procedures she was extremely encouraging, and this unwavering support through her mentorship was extremely important to me. She is a positive role model and has set many great examples for her students to follow. I see an immense growth in my skills as a dental clinician and I owe it to her trust and wisdom.
What’s the next step for you in your career? And further ahead, what do you hope to accomplish?
I will be doing a general practice residency at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital for the next year. I am extremely excited to enhance my clinical skills and to continue maturing as a dental clinician.
In the near future, I hope to become an endodontist and to specialize in treating tooth pain and providing root canals. Regardless of where my career path takes me, I am passionate about providing oral health education and care to my patients. As long as I’m doing this, I can’t go wrong.
What one thing will you miss most about Columbia?
As graduation approaches, I am excited for this great achievement but also saddened by a chapter coming to a close. Dental school is a journey, and I couldn’t have done it without all the friends and faculty that I have encountered along the way.
This chapter may be closing, but a new one is opening for all of us. It is a privilege to be part of the Columbia family, and am sure my classmates and I will all make our teachers and our parents proud.
- 2015, Orthodontics
Under the supervision of Dr. Courtney Chinn, Jason Lin has investigated the potential for dental institutions and student-run programs to improve the oral health of vulnerable and underserved populations throughout New York City. In support of this project, Jason was one of five recipients from medical, dental, and nursing students across the United States to receive the Margaret E. Mahoney Fellowship from the New York Academy of Medicine in the summer of 2013.
During this fellowship, his research team focused on health policy, with an emphasis on enrichment and leadership activities. They met with several leaders in the healthcare field, including former Surgeon General David Satcher and the president of the Commonwealth Fund, David Blumenthal. At the conclusion of the fellowship, Jason and the other four fellows presented to distinguished faculty, mentors, and healthcare leaders at both the Academy of Medicine and the Commonwealth Fund.
Additionally, Jason was awarded the Basic Science Award at the Birnberg Research Symposium at Columbia University for another project with Dr. David Figurski in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology.
The project (“Does the Inverted Repeat Region Near the Promoter Affect Tight Adherence (tad) Locus Expression In Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans?”) utilizes a new genetic recombineering technique that uses shorter primers. With this project, Jason represented the College of Dental Medicine at the Hinman Research Symposium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Elizabeth Fadoju ’17 knows exactly what a difference one individual can make in sparking and encouraging a young person’s career interests.
In Ms. Fadoju’s case, it started with her mom. Mrs. Fadoju began her own career as a midwife in Lagos, Nigeria, before eventually moving to Baltimore, Md., with four-year-old Elizabeth and the rest of their family. There, Mrs. Fadoju earned her nursing degree and encouraged her daughter to become a physician.
Ms. Fadoju grew up to earn a scholarship to the University of Maryland at College Park, but it was not easy meeting the scholarship’s minimum GPA requirement while pursuing a pre-med degree. In her first year, she experienced moments of deep discouragement.
“As a freshman, I had to take organic chemistry, the big, bad wolf!” she says. Her GPA took a hit, and she started second- guessing her academic choices. But Mrs. Fadoju, as well as a professor at Maryland, encouraged Ms. Fadoju to keep going.
That same year, Ms. Fadoju attended the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at Columbia, the six-week residential program for first- and second-year college students interested in medicine and dentistry. There, she discovered the innovations taking place in dental medicine at Columbia. She was awestruck by experiences like the lectures Candice Zemnick, DMD, associate professor of dental medicine, gave on the use of maxillofacial prosthetics to fabricate new eyes and noses for people who suffer traumas from cancer.
“I was overwhelmed with the possibilities that the field offered, by the impact I might make as a health provider, and the opportunities that an education from Columbia would provide,” says Ms. Fadoju.
She also met Dennis Mitchell, DDS, associate professor of dental medicine and senior associate dean for diversity (and now also Columbia vice provost for faculty diversity). Dr. Mitchell took notice of Ms. Fadoju’s growing curiosity in dental medicine and encouraged her to persevere in her undergraduate studies.
She finished at Maryland, earning a BS degree in general biology with a minor in Spanish language and culture. She credits her summer at Columbia for her decision to pursue dental medicine as a career.
“The day I found out I got accepted into the DDS program at Columbia was, as corny as it sounds, truly a dream come true after many ups and downs in undergrad,” Ms. Fadoju says. “Dental school is dental school, but the people at Columbia make up a diverse amalgam (dentistry pun intended) of unique, genuine, and beyond-talented individuals.”
Now well into her studies at the College of Dental Medicine, Ms. Fadoju is more focused than ever on pursuing her career. A U.S. Navy Health Professions Scholar, she also is pursuing a dual degree at Teachers College.
“My life might have turned out a lot differently had it not been for educators, so I’m incorporating that degree into my studies and ideas for work as a professional,” Ms. Fadoju says. “It’s my own affirmation of a key principle at Teachers College: Great educators push students to believe that success is both possible and expected.”
A former product design team member at GE and Apple, Al Huynh brings a diverse range of career experiences to the College of Dental Medicine. His industry responsibilities greatly sharpened his acuity to technical detail and his ability to collaborate with team members, two skill sets he feels have prepared him well for the dental profession. The sense of being able to provide for his community, however, was what attracted Al to dentistry and to the College of Dental Medicine in particular.
Al began serving his community from his first year at the College of Dental Medicine and currently serves as the president of the class of 2018. Beyond the classroom, Al strives to regularly engage in community outreach projects in underserved areas, as he feels the dental profession has granted him the opportunity to provide care to those with limited accessibility. He is also attracted to the possibility of contributing to humanitarian relief efforts in areas affected by natural disasters. Al is passionate about giving back to the country that has given his family numerous opportunities, and in October, 2014, Al was sworn in as an Officer in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps.
Al has an interest in a variety of fields within dentistry including general dentistry, orthodontics, and prosthodontics. He keeps an open mind as to what he will do and where he will serve, but one thing he knows for certain is that the dental education he will receive at Columbia will prepare him for a lifelong career as a dental professional.
Jamila Taylor is from Dallas, Texas, and received her bachelor's degree in biological sciences from the University of Chicago. She is grateful to have the opportunity to study dentistry at the College of Dental Medicine and loves the sense of community that exists within and between different classes. She enjoys all that NYC has to offer and explores when she has time!
Jamila began to consider dentistry as a potential career path towards the end of high school. She was able to learn a great deal about the profession through shadowing and particularly through participation in two pre-dental enrichment programs (one after high school and the other during college). One program was at Baylor College of Dentistry and the other was here at Columbia (she was in the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP ) summer 2012 cohort). These programs opened her eyes to the many different career paths that exist within the dental profession.
Jamila appreciates the wealth of opportunities that the College of Dental Medicine provides, and the ability to connect with many people from diverse backgrounds. She looks forward to more friendships made and insights gained during the rest of her time here!
When it came to choosing a career path, DDS student John Yoo always had music in the back of his mind -- he began singing competitively when he was five years old. But John felt that a career in the arts lacked the one thing that was most important to him: making a direct, substantial difference in people's lives.
With his mother as his coach, John sang throughout his childhood and began auditioning for choral groups in middle school. "I practiced really hard, constantly recording myself, picking out the smallest flaws, improving my technique and my expressiveness, and repeating," he said. His painstaking efforts paid off, and in his junior year he placed second in New Jersey, qualified for 2 All-Easterns, and received the New Jersey Governor’s Award in Music.
As a freshman at Duke University, John sang with Duke’s premier all-male a cappella group and a Korean band he formed with his friends. Academically, he focused on the pre-med track while doing research on the side.
Still ambivalent about his overall direction by senior year, John took a semester off to pursue clinical research with his PI, Dr. Charles Kim of Duke Radiology.
It was Dr. Kim who challenged him to find his true passion. "He asked me a few critical questions, like, 'Do you know for certain that you want to go into medicine? Have you considered your other interests?' " John recalled. "I realized I didn’t have a great answer. And Dr. Kim gave me time off to explore."
John tried adolescent music therapy at a psychiatric hospital, shadowed in the pediatric oncology ward, and spent more than one all-nighter in his dorm room recording K-pop love ballads. "One afternoon, I shadowed my first dentist and my mind was blown," he said. "It was the first time I saw the endless possibilities of community service through dentistry."
For John, dentistry felt like the profession in which all his interests and talents intersected. "I loved the idea of seeing dentistry as the artistic medium through which I could help people--many, many people."
John had always dreamed of living in New York City, but at the College of Dental Medicine, it's the community feeling he loves best. "We are all one big family here, from underclassmen to upperclassmen to faculty to alumni. It’s so evident in how we treat and look out for one another."
He's been able to pursue his passion for research as well, working with Dr. Shantanu Lal to investigate the latest "SmartBrush," a Bluetooth-connected toothbrush that provides data on a user's brushing habits.
"This field is constantly moving forward with new technology and evidence-based dentistry," he said. "Being involved in research is like being part of the future of dentistry."
Now finishing his second year at the College of Dental Medicine, John hasn't looked back. Despite a busy schedule, he hasn't given up his music, either. He still sings with his old band, Seoul Singers, and he recently formed a new boy band with two first-year students. “Check out the ‘K-Town Boyz’ on our world tour of NYC!”
When Stephanie Bernard left her South Florida home as a teenager to live in Jamaica for three years, she wasn't expecting to return enthusiastic about dentistry. But that's exactly what happened.
Stephanie was entering eighth grade when her parents offered her and her two younger siblings the opportunity for a different life experience. They could move in with their grandparents in Black River St. Elizabeth, a rural village in Jamaica.
Life in Jamaica was definitely different for Stephanie. "When you go there from a town like Coral Springs, where everyone is privileged, you start to notice the differences in the clothes that people are wearing, missing front teeth, things like that," Stephanie said. "You start to notice it even as a young child."
One of most noticeable differences was the lack of access people had to healthcare. "And dentistry tends to be last on the list priority-wise," she added.
Her grandparents were very involved in their local church and it was there that she met a dentist who was helping to provide oral care for their community. In her conversations with him, Stephanie realized just how much opportunity there was to help the underserved in dentistry.
"If you don't have a nice smile, that's the first thing that someone will notice about you," she said. "You go for a job interview, school, whatever it is--it's the first thing that people will see. And if you don't have a great smile it can hinder you so much."
When she returned to the United States, Stephanie finished high school and enrolled in Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where she was one of just a few pre-dental students. "I had a great mentor, a local dentist, and he told me to just shoot for the stars. Columbia's possible. Just apply and see what happens," she said.
Stephanie took her mentor's advice and got accepted to seven dental schools. "I'd call my mom after every interview," she laughed. "After my Columbia interview, she said, 'Hold on! Go back! I can't even understand what you're saying!' And that's when I knew that this is where I wanted to be."
Now finishing her first year of dental school, Stephanie is already heavily involved with community service at the College of Dental Medicine. She volunteers in the free clinic in Harlem twice a month, tutors local middle school students, and visits elementary schools to give oral health information to kids.
Eventually, she plans to give back to her Jamaican community. "They have people who come and give back and the community is so grateful and so receptive," she said. "There is so much opportunity to help with dentistry."