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At the dawn of the 2020s, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry (SOD) was poised for continued growth in all four organizational pillars: education, research, patient care, and community engagement.

UAB Pediatric Dentistry TeamSmile event, Feb. 2020UAB Pediatric Dentistry TeamSmile event, Feb. 2020Russell S. Taichman, D.M.D., D.M.Sc., who became the school’s ninth dean in 2019, announced leadership appointments that fall and the school unveiled a new, user-friendly website the following January.

As February rolled around, the UAB Student Recreation Center was bustling with volunteers and program staff for the city’s second TeamSmile event. Held during National Children’s Dental Health Month, the UAB Pediatric Dentistry team joined former UAB football players to provide basic care and oral health education to children in need.

UAB SOD hosted a regional dental leadership meeting – the 65th Southern Conference of Dental Deans and Examiners – in conjunction with its annual Alumni Weekend. Attendees were treated to national speakers and a taste of Birmingham’s history and award-winning cuisine.

A mere 75 days into 2020, the world was forever changed.

Dr. Ken Tilashalski presents at EXCEL, March 12, 2020Dr. Ken Tilashalski presents at EXCEL, March 12, 2020The school’s EXCEL (Excellence through Continued Enrichment and Learning) program on March 12 was the last in-person gathering before activities came to a screeching halt. The training included a segment with Ken Tilashalski, D.M.D., speaking on the outbreak of a new disease, COVID-19, which had been announced by the CDC in January.

By March 15, dental schools across the country and around the world experienced disruptions in research activities and clinical training due to COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing measures, and concerns about the spread of the virus in clinical settings. UAB was no different.

While the global pandemic tested the school’s resilience, SOD employees and students alike rose to the occasion.

To continue academic activities while adhering to safety guidelines, the school swiftly transitioned to virtual learning. Lectures, discussions, and even some aspects of clinical training were conducted online through the fall.

Then the school quickly adapted, pivoted and prepared to reopen when safe, implementing stringent safety protocols in clinical settings to protect students, employees, and patients. This included the implementation of new technology paired with the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), enhanced sanitation measures, and changes in patient management proceduresAngela Rembert (right) pictured with staff and students at improvised COVID-19 check in station which later transitioned to Guest ServicesAngela Rembert (right) pictured with staff and students at improvised COVID-19 check in station which later transitioned to Guest Services across clinics. Clinics soon reopened with faculty and staff providing emergency care at first, residents joining in June, then students re-entering and full operations resuming in the summer.

Among those leading the charge were Perng-Ru Liu, D.D.S., D.M.D., then associate dean of Clinical Affairs, and Angela Rembert, administrative assistant in the Office of the Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs. For their efforts, Liu and Rembert were among twenty faculty and staff selected to receive the inaugural President’s Award for Excellence in Shared Values. The award honored Blazers who demonstrated one or more of UAB’s shared values in the course of their work during the extraordinary times presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recognizing the impact of the pandemic on mental health, UAB and the SOD prioritized providing support services for students and employees. This included counseling services, mental health resources, and programs and strategies to manage stress and uncertainty. It was during this time that Funday Fridays were conceived, giving rise to the school’s annual ugly sweater contest, spirit events, and funny outfit days that continue today.

Despite experiencing pandemic-related interruptions to their education, including a 3-month interruption of clinical care, classes continued to graduate on time with meaningful clinical experiences and perform well on the national board examinations.

Members of the D.M.D. Class of 2027 attend Welcome DayMembers of the D.M.D. Class of 2027 attend Welcome DayBy mid-2021, the SOD was again on a growth trajectory.  The school implemented a stair step increase of the D.M.D. class size, expanded classrooms and offices, and began renovating the first floor predoctoral clinic to benefit patients and students. The following year the SOD announced plans to bring a new satellite dentistry clinic to Dothan, AL and partnered in initiatives such as a $1.5 million HRSA grant and the Rural Dental Scholar Program to address the state’s dental crisis. And new clinical and research-intensive faculty are being hired.

Impacts in patient care, UAB Oral Oncology is among the first in the Southeast to use augmented reality in head and neck cancer surgery and during the pandemic, a UAB co-written report found the COVID-19 rate among dentists less than 1 percent. The data was collected in June 2020 during the height of COVID-19 infection spread in the United States. The study also found that 99.7 percent of dentists were utilizing enhanced infection control and prevention measures.

Research accomplishments include a $3.2 million grant renewal from NIH to continue training future dental academicians and the renewal of GC-CODED as a University-Wide Interdisciplinary Research Center (UWIRC). Both programs have significant impact on the school’s research enterprise. Notable studies: A UAB researcher receives funding to study the link between periodontitis and Alzheimer’s disease, another UAB researcher leads the nation’s first dental implant registry, and the UAB-led National Dental Practice-Based Research Network, which has conducted dozens of studies involving thousands of dental practitioners and patients, now has statistical evidence that the results of those efforts are being well received by the scientific community.

Faculty and staff participate in an EXCEL program Oct. 18Faculty and staff participate in an EXCEL program Oct. 18Annual events such as Alumni Weekend and Dental Hygiene Symposium are setting new records and following Liu’s passing in 2022, UAB Continuing Dental Education established an annual Dr. Perng-Ru Liu Memorial Lecture, with the first program taking place in October 2023.

Nicolaas Geurs, D.D.S., became the school’s interim dean in July 2023. With a commitment to collaboration and engagement, Geurs focused the Oct. 18 EXCEL program – held on the school’s 75th anniversary – on communicating and working together stating, “That process of working as a team is the most meaningful aspect of EXCEL.”

The school’s rich 75-year history has been defined by excellence and innovation. As its anniversary year comes to a close, the foundation is in place for future growth – and continued leadership of oral health.

For the UAB School of Dentistry, the opportunities are endless.