A beacon of dental healthcare and education, Dr. Srikar Vulugundam has etched his path in the diverse fields of general dentistry, public health, and academic mentorship over the past 23 years.

His journey began with grassroots engagement in rural India and transitioned to advancing educational frontiers in the United States. With a Bachelor’s in Dental Surgery from India, he then pursued a Master’s in Public Health and a Doctorate in Dental Surgery from NYU College of Dentistry.

His commitment to enhancing healthcare access led him to serve in a federally qualified health center and later rise as a dental director, overseeing expansive dental programs in New Jersey. Dr. Vulugundam embodies the synergy of practical dentistry and academia, influencing improved public health practices while nurturing the next generation of dental professionals at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis. Alongside clinical practice, he contributes to several professional journals, helping shape the dialogue in dental science and healthcare policy.

In this exclusive interview, Dr. Vulugundam delves into the nuances of his role as an educator and mentor, reflecting upon the fulfillment derived from guiding aspirants towards a compassion-driven career in serving underserved communities. This article honors his exemplary devotion to cultivating a robust and accessible oral healthcare landscape.

Hello, Dr. Vulugundam. Thank you for joining us today. Your contributions to the field of dentistry, especially in education, are highly commendable. To start, can you describe your teaching philosophy and how it influences your approach to mentoring dental students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center?

Doing the right thing without taking shortcuts is a clear path to success. This philosophy guides all my professional endeavors. By implementing strong ethics in my daily routine, I consider myself a role model in mentoring students. This approach sets the right expectations for students to abide by, helping them become successful clinicians.

Could you share a particularly impactful experience you’ve had while mentoring dental students during their clinical rotations?

Clinical rotations provide the perfect setting for students to hone their clinical skills through one-on-one interactions. There have been numerous impactful experiences, but one stands out in particular. A student, after weeks of rotation, approached me and expressed how easily she could perform certain local anesthetic techniques. She shared that she was successful 100% of the time during her clinical rotation at our clinic and attributed this achievement to my mentorship. Experiencing that moment was incredibly rewarding, knowing I had helped someone advance their professional skills.

How do you integrate your extensive background in public health with clinical dentistry in your teaching methodology?

Although public health may seem distant from clinical responsibilities, every procedure and interaction with a patient involves “health education,” which in turn impacts the health of that patient, as well as their family and friends, indirectly. On numerous occasions, I’ve interacted with patients who were referred by others from our practice. While it may seem like a smaller impact, such referrals indirectly fulfill our public health goals of health education and the improvement of oral health in our community.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a mentor in dentistry, and what do you find most rewarding about this role?

Over the last decade, interacting with students from diverse backgrounds has shown me that communication remains the biggest challenge in education. Every mentor needs to master the skill of communicating clinical expectations in a way that students understand. Even after many years of working with students, effective communication continues to be a crucial aspect of teaching.

Swiftly switching roles from clinician to mentor to administrator is another challenge I encounter in my daily routine. The most rewarding aspect of my role is educating and training future generations of dentists, contributing to building a strong network of public health dentists.

In what ways do you believe your mentorship helps shape the future of your students’ careers in dentistry?

The purpose of student rotations is to educate students about the shortage of public health dentists in the USA and to nurture a future generation of public health dental professionals. These efforts have been very successful in the past, with many of our students considering job opportunities in public health settings. Our students become well-oriented and trained to function in these environments, helping us shape their futures while simultaneously building a robust network of public health professionals.

How have you seen dental education evolve over the years, and what role do you play in advancing it through your mentorship?

With the digital advancement in all professions, dentistry has seen the introduction of multiple advanced materials and treatment options. As a profession, we consistently remain at the forefront of digital progression. I stay current with all technological and research advancements through continuing education coursework, which aids me in mentoring the next generation of dental professionals.

How do you balance your responsibilities as a clinician with your role as an educator and mentor, and what synergies do you find between the two?

Balancing the dual roles of a clinician and an educator is a nuanced task, achievable through meticulous scheduling and fostering a self-supportive team. As a Dental Director, my initial interactions with students are focused on conducting orientations to establish clear expectations for their clinical rotation. Setting these expectations upfront facilitates smoother progression into detailed clinical training, which often involves one-on-one interactions. In these sessions, the application of didactic knowledge frequently proves crucial for successful clinical outcomes. The roles of clinician and educator are inherently intertwined, making it challenging to distinguish them as separate responsibilities. This synergy is essential for effective teaching and practice in the field of dentistry.

What advice would you give to dental professionals who are considering a transition into educational roles or mentorship positions in the field of dentistry?

Being in an educational or mentorship role is immensely rewarding and brings a deep sense of purpose to our profession. Having served as a mentor for many years, I am continually surprised to find that this role involves a two-way learning process. My years of clinical experience in dentistry assist in guiding students to refine their clinical skills. Simultaneously, being connected with an academic institution keeps me updated with the latest research advancements. For anyone considering a hybrid role as both a clinician and an academician, the experience is truly enriching, offering a glimpse into the real essence of being a healthcare professional.

With Dr. Srikar Vulugundam’s insights, we are reminded that excellence in dentistry transcends the clinic. It sits in the diligent mentorship of professionals who value not just the treatment, but the holistic development of the next generation of dental professionals. These educators are the harbingers of a future where quality care and public health education are paramount.

We invite all aspiring health professionals and advocates for public health to draw inspiration from Dr. Vulugundam’s journey. Consider the role of mentorship and education in your career path, and ponder how you, too, can make an indelible impact in fostering accessible healthcare and nurturing the growth of future caretakers of our communities.

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