Women in dentistry: Meet dental technician and researcher Dr Joanne Choi
Even though in some countries there are already more women than men entering dentistry, the top positions, be it in dental schools, dental organisations or conferences, are still predominantly held by men. As part of a series portraying outstanding career paths and achievements of women in dentistry, Dental Tribune International spoke with Dr Joanne Choi, senior lecturer in the Department of Oral Rehabilitation at the University of Otago in Dunedin in New Zealand. In this interview, she talks about her career path that started with a move to a different country, about what connects art and dental technology, and about the importance of practical experience for dental research.
Dr Choi, your story started in South Korea; however, at the age of 15 you moved to New Zealand—without your family. What was the reason for this rather unusual decision?
My parents had always been interested in providing a better education for me, and one way to do this was to give me an opportunity to study in an English-speaking country. Proficiency in English was, and still is, regarded as a major advantage in education and employment in South Korea. I grew up in a small town in South Korea, and my parents’ original plan was to send me to a high school in Seoul for me to prepare for university entrance exams. However, my parents have family friends who live in New Zealand. They recommended that my parents send me to New Zealand to try out studying there, and that’s how it all started!
How did you experience your first months in New Zealand? What new habits did you enjoy, and what circumstances were difficult in the beginning?
For the first month, I was very excited to be in a new country and in a new learning environment and to be able to make new friends, but I quickly realised that it was more difficult than I had thought. I had been achieving good grades in English in South Korea, so I was confident at the beginning. However, studying all subjects in English was a totally different story.
The way in which we were taught was also quite different. In South Korea, most exams were multiple-choice questions which required a great deal of memorisation of information over a short period of time. In New Zealand, most exams were long-answer essay-type exams for which I had to gain a good understanding of the topics. At first, this approach was very different to what I was used to and difficult for me to adjust to. However, over time, I realised that it suited me well, and I was able to enjoy this new way of learning.
As a career path, you considered art school or studying a science degree. What inspired you to go into dentistry, or to be more precise, into dental technology?
Since my youth, I had really enjoyed making things with my hands, hence I focused on a possible career in art for quite a long time. During my high school years, I developed an interest in science, especially in physics and chemistry. I looked for an option where I could combine both my interests, and a course advisor in high school recommended a degree in dental technology, which was only offered at the University of Otago. I liked the idea that the course was very hands on and I could make things using my artistic skill, while what I made was based on scientific knowledge and the result could have a positive impact on a patient’s health and life.
After having worked as a dental technician for a couple of years, you went back to the university to pursue your academic career. What motivated you to follow this path?
In the final years of my Bachelor of Dental Technology degree, I had had opportunities to become involved in research. This was especially the case during my Honours degree, which made me realise that research was something that I enjoyed doing and wanted to continue. I liked the teaching aspect too, so coming back to do a PhD and pursuing a career in academia became my plan.
However, I knew it was important to have commercial work experience in dentistry and dental technology. Materials and technologies in dentistry are constantly changing, and therefore, our research must be transferable to clinical and laboratory settings, since it will have an impact in both areas.
Having that couple of years of work experience built a good foundation for me before coming back to the university to do a PhD and widened my perspective for teaching and research. This is why I still continue to do a few hours of work as a clinical dental technician outside my full-time academic career.
You have achieved a great deal professionally. To what extent did the move to New Zealand play a role in this? Do you think you could have pursued the same career in South Korea?
Thank you! I think the move to New Zealand definitely played a positive role in my career. As an international student living overseas, it meant I had to be independent and responsible for many things myself. I became more proactive and sought opportunities, which opened many doors for me, especially in my professional career. Also, living in another country, I think made me more open-minded, which helps in many aspects of life.
“I want to normalise that there are women doing outstanding work and research in dentistry”
An increasing number of women are studying dentistry—in some countries even more women than men. Nevertheless, women are still under-represented, for example as speakers at dental congresses or in high positions at dental schools. How do you engage with and empower others in the dentistry field?
I agree, and I think it is the same in New Zealand. Although women are graduating with dental degrees in increasing numbers, their representation diminishes by the time they reach more senior levels. However, I can foresee more female students doing postgraduate studies and becoming interested in different areas of dentistry, including academia, which is really great!
At the moment, I’m trying my best as a research supervisor and a lecturer to give support to my female students. I promote outstanding work by female students and colleagues in order to show them that they are not alone in this field. I want to normalise that there are women doing outstanding work and research in dentistry, especially in dental technology, and that conferences show a good representation of all.
You have built yourself a life in a different county, obtained a PhD and are successfully working on research projects. Of what achievement are you most proud, and do you have any other important goals for the future?
I am particularly proud of the research projects and research teams that I have established and have been working on, especially the one on developing a novel white shell crown for dental caries management in children. There was a great deal of work involved in getting the project up to the stage where it is now, so I’m proud of what I and my supportive team have achieved and excited about what we can achieve in the future. I’m really looking forward to seeing my research ideas and the findings of other research projects being translated into a clinical setting and contributing to providing improved dentistry for people.
At the moment, my greatest goal for the future is to continue to be a good teacher, researcher and supervisor to my students and to give them as much support as possible so that they can be succesful in their dental career and do further research, postgraduate studies and pursue an academic career.