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SURF: Enhancing Research Skills for a Comprehensive Dental Career

The Summer Research Fellowship program, commonly known as SURF, is the School of Dentistry’s gateway research opportunity for predoctoral students. Over the past 25 years, the program has connected students interested in developing research skills with the School’s strongest research faculty members.

DDS student Teddy Dong presents his research at the School’s annual Research Day.
DDS student Teddy Dong presents his research at the School’s annual Research Day.

Students enroll in the program during the spring of their first year and dedicate three months of full-time work over the course of 12 months. They begin by discussing research opportunities with their preceptor before submitting a letter of intent and a proposal for their project. Upon project approval, students work with researchers from across the UW to garner skills and insight that fuel their projects. They finish by presenting at the School’s annual Research Day at the start of the calendar year.

“Taking on a research project teaches you to be a critical thinker,” says Dr. Donald Chi, who directs the program. “The entire process – from finding and collaborating with a mentor, collecting and analyzing data, writing up results and presenting your findings to a sometimes-critical audience – encourages students not to take things at face value, but to question and be critical about things.”

Dr. Chi enrolled in the SURF program when he was a dental student. This was the starting point for his acclaimed career in oral health research, which led him to the role of Associate Dean for Research at our School.

“I participated in SURF as a dental student. It was perfect for me because there was no DDS-PhD program at the time. This was the only way I could get research experience and ultimately, it’s what guided me toward getting a PhD,” said Dr. Chi. “This was the experience that helped me figure out what I wanted to study after graduating from dental school.”

Now, as a faculty member, he helps students find their own passion for research.

Dr. Sy Nakao (’16) participated in the SURF program in 2013. Mentored by Dr. Chi, he discovered research interests about topics outside of oral health. His project studied nationwide emergency department data to see if there was any statistical correlation between patients diagnosed with autism and a greater usage of the emergency department for dental purposes. He found no correlation but came away from the experience with a wealth of knowledge.

“Working with Dr. Chi, I realized that when a lot of people read research articles, they look at the summary and then go into the results and discussion, but really, as a scientist, you want to read into the methodology and see if it’s correct,” says Dr. Sy Nakao. “You can have the best or most stunning results and great discussion about why the results are the way they are, but if they are based on a methodology that isn’t sound and can’t be duplicated, or if the statistics aren’t there or aren’t statistically significant, then all of that means nothing.”

Dr. Nakao now works in various clinics for the Hawaii State Department of Health, primarily seeing patients with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“In my project I had to learn what autism is,” says Dr. Nakao. “Before, I had heard the term – I had an idea of what it was – but I learned much more about it and other developmental and intellectual disabilities, which helps me today with the patients I see.

“It’s interesting how life kind of pulls you one way, and how the project was kind of a precursor and a foreshadowing of what my life was going to be,” he says.

Students are finding the SURF program to be an essential element of their postgraduate experience in terms of exposure to research.

“For many, research is a privilege that can only be accessed during dental school,” says second-year student Sydney Kim, who has been working on her project this past year. “The SURF program can be a preview to research if you are thinking about pursuing a specialty, but it can also be an opportunity for you to find out if research just isn’t for you, which may be the case for some.”

For the year prior to enrolling in the School of Dentistry, Kim worked in the Ruohola-Baker lab, part of UW Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry, under Dr. Sesha Hanson-Drury (DDS/PhD ‘20), herself a past SURF participant. The experience solidified Kim’s interest in research. In her first year, Kim was accepted by the SURF program and the DDS/PhD track, two of the School’s major research opportunities for predoctoral students.

Since submitting her SURF proposal last December, she has spent many hours conceptualizing her project, experimenting and collaborating with other researchers.

“Not only am I building an arsenal of basic molecular biology techniques that are invaluable to someone interested in bench research, but I am also learning how to become an investigator that deals with failures and roadblocks,” says Kim. “I know that in the future, this time I spent wrestling with my project will become the foundation for the kind of scientist I grow into.”

Kim will present her project at Research Day this winter, an event that third-year student Chao “Teddy” Dong recently participated in.

“SURF helped me develop critical thinking to analyze complex problems, evaluate evidence and develop well-reasoned arguments,” says Dong. “Upon completing my study, I got familiar with presenting the research findings through reports, presentations, posters and the publication process. Balancing research work with other school commitments requires strong time management skills to ensure study progress, and I appreciate all the support I received from school faculties, staff and administrators.”

Dong recognizes that engaging in research can translate directly to patient care by helping clinicians make well-informed decisions and offering innovative solutions to dental challenges. By learning how to grapple with complex research concepts, clinicians can help patients better understand their oral health conditions and treatment options, which can lead to improved patient engagement and compliance with recommended treatments.

“By joining our SURF program, you’re not just engaging in a short-term project,” says Dong, “you’re setting the foundation for a successful academic and professional future. The skills you develop, the knowledge you gain and the connections you make will open doors you might never have imagined.”

Dr. Lang with Posterboard
Alumna Dr. Courtney Lang (’22) participating in Research Day as a student in 2018.

For those who know they want to have a career in research down the line, SURF offers a premier opportunity to move toward that goal. Sometimes though, the best form of education is trying new things and seeing what sticks.

“I was introduced to the SURF program the first few weeks of dental school during Early Clinical Immersion,” says Dr. Courtney Lang (’22). “SURF was presented as the principal research opportunity for dental students. As an eager first-year, I was excited to jump in and take advantage of all the opportunities the dental school had to offer, and I am so glad I did.”

Currently a second-year resident in the Graduate Endodontics Program, Dr. Lang has been using her SURF experience to help her grow as a clinician and researcher.

“The skills developed and lessons learned from writing my initial research proposal, collecting and analyzing my own data and presenting and publishing my SURF project, undoubtedly made my transition into a research-heavy residency a smoother one,” she says.

Dr. Lang admitted that adding the SURF program to an already long list of requirements as a first-year dental student can be daunting. However, she encourages anyone who’s interested to give it a shot.

“If you have any interest, big or small, or are unsure, meet with a couple of potential mentors with research interests in topics you find intriguing. You will surprise yourself with how easy it is to become energized and motivated after talking with the brilliant and passionate faculty at the School of Dentistry,” she says.

All of the research faculty who Dr. Lang worked with during her time in SURF were great, she said, but she credits her mentor with guiding her through the entire experience.

“My project, from inception to publication, would not have been possible without the knowledgeable, incredibly patient and amazingly talented clinician and teacher Dr. Chi,” she says. “My growth as a researcher, as well as all my associated SURF accolades are owed to him.”

Dr. Lang’s sentiment resonates with other SURF alumni.

“Dr. Chi was a really great mentor who kept me focused,” says Dr. Nakao. “Of the professors that I look back on from the SOD, [he] is definitely up there for teachers who made an impact on my life in dental school and outside.”

Typically, six to 12 students enroll in the SURF program each year. Dr. Chi is looking for ways to expand that to closer to 20 students, which may involve opening the program to non-first-year students, including incoming dental students who could get started before their classes begin.

The SURF program can surely be seen as an extra responsibility on top of an already rigorous dental school schedule. Those who take on the added challenge are gifted with invaluable research advice and a foundation for critical thinking skills they will use no matter where their dental journey takes them.

“My hope is that we’re planting critical thinking skills in all participants, so that at the end of the day they’re stronger, better dentists,” says Dr. Chi. “If you have scientific sensibilities and you know how to read the literature and apply it to patient care, you’re going to end up, in the end, providing the best patient care that you can.”