ASK Dr. T. James Lee
D.M.D (Boston USA)
Could you talk about what made you start the journey of dentistry?
It all started with a one-way ticket to the US when I was in my early 20s. At that time, I finished my national military service in the Army working as a counsellor. I had choice to go to Germany to continue legal studies or go to the US to do something different. I chose to do something different. I got admitted to a summer school at Graduate School of Design at Harvard. Then I went back to Boston to continue studying architecture and arts.
There was a time when I read the book by Tafuri and started to think about : was I going to just build beautiful things for this world? Or should I at least do something to make people live better. Then I was also volunteering at Tufts University Medical School Sharewood free medical care program, and at the ER of New England Medical Center. I was inspired and encouraged by people I met. I got into Columbia University for pre-med program to prepare myself, and later I transferred back to Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Science.
I did debate about whether I should choose medicine or dentistry. One of a friend’s uncle and aunt have a dental practice near Boston. One was prosthodontics and the other was periodontics trained. They invited me to their clinic to shadow for a summer. There I got exposure to restorations and surgery, and I was fascinated. I knew THIS is for me. I applied dental schools that fall and got admitted two days immediately after my interview.
How did you like dental school training?
I enjoyed every moment there. The US system prefers dental or medical school applicants to have more well-rounded background. So only an A in biology or chemistry is not enough. They expect us to be a good human being before becoming a doctor. So getting all the As for the required subjects are just the starting point.
Dr. Sydell Shaw interviewed me during the application. Her first question to me was what I did during my free time. I played tennis, Cello and loved design projects. Many of my classmates come from very diverse backgrounds. One with double major in biology and performing art from UCLA and was touring in Europe for years playing classical piano before going to dental school.
Another was majoring in Germany literature, spoke few different languages and eventually became a dentist. Later I went to University of Illinois in Chicago to do specialty in prosthodontics. Classmates there were from Japan, Korea, Thailand and of course, the US. We were the ones opening the eyes of each other and have become life-time partners for learning.
Do you have any special moments you can recall?
In my dental school curriculum, we had to do two times of externship. First time I chose to be at a prosthodontist’s office. My mentor was a professor at Harvard Dental School. He was very knowledgable, fun and kind, and I learned a lot from him. Second time I chose to be in a community health center in northern Massachusetts. It was a community with most residents as Caribbean immigrants. They were warm and polite, and most of them speak English mixed with Creole. I communicated with them in English and Spanish.
One time I had this patient came in with fracture of two frontal teeth. He had this fracture for a long time but just couldn’t afford to find a dentist to have it fixed. I helped him to apply for government low income subsidy and fixed his teeth. I still remember the tears in his eyes when he saw his teeth. t was hard for him to find a decent job with two frontal teeth missing. He later found a new job with better income. He brought his children to see me and told me all of this change. You try to do good things to people, and it may influence more people to do good things to the society.
Later I finished my externship, and returned to dental school to continue my studies. Few months after I had to go back to review one of the patients. The receptionist at the same community health center told me that her whole her family heard about me and how I did dentistry. She was so inspired, and she decided to apply to hygienist school, and she got accepted. I was so happy for her.
What made you come to Singapore?
One time in Chicago, an instructor’s specialist friend from Singapore, with whom she did fellowship together back in Switzerland was visiting. Her friend told me I could work in Singapore with my American dental license. Few weeks later, my father suddenly passed away in Taipei, and I rushed back to attend his funeral. I felt I had the responsibility to stay in Asia for a few years, at which moment I thought of Singapore, so I quit my prosthodontics training in the US and relocated to Singapore.
How do you find Singapore?
I have to say Singapore is young and full of energy. Dental societies here constantly hold courses or training with speakers from US, Japan or Europe. Singapore is able to merge the best parts of Eastern and Western knowledge. Singapore can take the leading role in dentistry not only in the region but also globally. Of course many foundations will need to be laid down for the achievements to come through. I am glad to be part of it.
Did you also further your studies after coming to Singapore?
Yes, I went to Tokyo Medical and Dental University to horn my skills and knowledge in prosthodontics by enrolling in a PhD program. It was ranked top 1 dental school in Japan, and top 10 in the whole world. I decided to go there because one of my instructors in Chicago encouraged me to. My focus was dental implant materials. The educational structure in the school encouraged us to discover problems that nobody knew or solved before.
PhD is a long and lonely process to absorb and compare newest research and verify it in clinical work. Through this tough process, I accumulated knowledge from dentistry, medicine and engineering. It also helps me to constantly keep an open mind to learn new technologies.
I heard you have lived in quite a few different countries? How does it influence your work in dentistry?
Yes. My father believes a man should earn his name by himself. We value the importance of being independent. It was also my dream to see the world when I was a kid, so I studied and worked hard to make this happen. I have moved around for my education and work. In the US, I have lived in Boston and NYC. Other than the US, I lived in Taiwan, Japan, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and now my home – Singapore.
I learned their languages while I was living in these countries. Being able to understand more than one language of course helps me to widen my knowledge on dental research. More importantly, the language competence enables me to better understand, appreciate and respect different cultures. I also have met and made friend with some great dentists all over the world. From them I have learned and I am still learning to be kind, humble and always work hard to be better. Seeing people from different backgrounds living their lives helps me to develop a lot of my sense of empathy toward other people. It also helps me understand better people’s or my patients’ needs.
In dentistry, we see a lot of updates on technologies and machines everyday. Yet we have to understand that technology and machines are essentially only a tool in the service of humanity. What matters is that when doctors/dentists (talented if possible) believe in and are willing to go that extra mile for you: I myself aspire to be one of those.
As for my patients, I encourage them to be passionate about their lives too. “The only person you are designated to be is the person you decide to be.”
Words: Julien Dijan