Becoming an educator was something Dr Tan Ming Yi never envisioned when she was growing up. In fact, she initially thought teaching was an arduous profession that consisted mostly of “running after kids”.
But Ming Yi’s perception changed during her time as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Dentistry (FOD). In addition to the more common lectures, Ming Yi found herself being taught by instructors through small-group learning sessions, and often on a one-to-one basis. And she loved it.
Ming Yi, 28, explained: “I felt this method of teaching was effective for me, especially as dental work is mostly quite hands-on.”
The nature of such small-group sessions provided Ming Yi with the opportunity to learn from and share knowledge with her peers. At times, some of her juniors in the faculty would also seek her guidance. Ming Yi found that the process of helping others to understand concepts helped to reinforce her own learning. These interactions also occasionally revealed lapses in her understanding, which could then be promptly corrected.
Following graduation, Ming Yi served as a dental officer at polyclinics and tertiary institutions. She decided to pursue specialisation in the field of prosthodontics after two years of service. The idea of becoming a dental instructor (educator of dentistry undergraduate students) was first planted by Associate Professor Keson Tan, her research supervisor from her undergraduate days. When Assoc Prof Tan learnt Ming Yi was applying for the local Masters programme, he invited her for a chat and shared insights on the life of an academic and suggested that she try it out.
“Going down this path (academic track) is unusual, although not unheard of,” recounted Ming Yi. “I initially only considered a career as full-time dentist because this is the most conventional path. Perhaps Assoc Prof Tan saw some potential in me that I could not identify myself.”
Ming Yi ultimately decided to take up the offer.
Today, Ming Yi finds herself at the opposite end of the classroom or dental laboratory at NUS. She has no regrets pursuing the career track of an academic.
“The academic path allows me to try a variety of job scopes,” Ming Yi said. “I continue to treat my patients, and I am privileged to be in a position to pass on what I have learnt. I also want to contribute to the greater scientific community through research efforts, and I find NUS to be a good place to pursue this.”
As a teacher now, Ming Yi continues to benefit from the small and intimate group learning sessions.
“As the group is small, it’s easier to get feedback from the students and I can adapt my teaching strategy almost instantly,” said Ming Yi. “Sometimes, I forget what it’s like to be a ‘beginner dentist’ and fail to simplify concepts to a level that is easily understood by undergraduate students. It takes some experimentation and practice to articulate these concepts. My students’ faces of confusion help me to fine-tune these explanations, and I have to thank them for their patience.”
According to a report in the Straits Times in February 2017, demand for dental care is likely to grow substantially in the years to come, especially with an ageing population in the country. There is an urgent need to nurture compassionate and competent future generations of dentists.
Ming Yi, who completed her Masters in July 2017, admits that the undergraduate dental curriculum can be challenging. Her advice to dentistry students is to work closely with one another, and to avail themselves to help their peers whenever they can.
Ming Yi believes that the environment at the faculty is conducive for building close bonds and a close-knit community.
“I’ll tell prospective students to be prepared for tough times, as the curriculum is rigorous,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of or be discouraged by the failures you encounter during dental school – use these as stepping stones towards competence. Talk to people – most problems are not unique, and chances are that someone will have a feasible solution for you.”
Away from the lecture hall, Ming Yi also fondly recalls her time on campus as a student, when she was staying at Sheares Hall.
“The most memorable were the friendships that I gained while living in Sheares Hall,” said Ming Yi. “I was in the swim team and several other committees, from which I learnt a lot about teamwork and organisation. It was also refreshing to interact with students from different faculties.”
Dentist or teacher, Ming Yi’s goal remains the same: to continue putting smiles on the faces of those whom she meets.