New Blaze to D.M.D. program provides pathway for promising new School of Dentistry students

The UAB School of Dentistry (SOD) doesn’t want test scores to automatically close any doors. After all, there are students who have plenty of potential to succeed in the profession, but simply need a little assistance to get there.

“The admissions committee kept seeing these applicants who we were excited about and thought were close to being ready for dental school, but weren’t quite there yet,” says Carly Timmons McKenzie, Ph.D., the School of Dentistry’s dean of admissions. “We wanted a way to give them the opportunity and time to develop and be truly prepared for dental school.”

The result is the new Blaze to D.M.D. program, which is beginning this summer. A partnership between the SOD, UAB School of Health Professions, and UAB Heersink School of Medicine, this 11-month master’s program is designed to help students establish a strong foundation in biomedical and health sciences in preparation for a traditional four-year D.M.D. degree.

Blaze to D.M.D. student Emmanuel Williams. Three students are part of the initial Blaze to D.M.D. cohort: Brandon Barnes from Huntsville, Tramya Osley from Birmingham, and Emmanuel Williams from Eutaw.

“We identified students in the admissions cycle who have a lot of potential, but just need some extra development time,” McKenzie says. “These are students who know they want to go into dentistry and know this is the right path for them. We want to ensure they’re set up to succeed in a very rigorous academic program.”

“Blaze to DMD allows us to admit high-potential applicants to dental school with the expectation that they’ll grow the necessary skills during the one-year master’s program on the front end. We expect this development year to produce well-prepared students ready to enter dental school.”

McKenzie says the program is aimed particularly at students who come from backgrounds that have often been under-represented in dentistry, including rural areas, racial and ethnic minorities, and economically disadvantaged groups.

“The profession needs more dentists from historically under-represented populations,” McKenzie says. “A lot of those groups are under-resourced, and sometimes the students just need additional time to really get their study skills in check. The Blaze to D.M.D. program is a way to do that.”

For Williams, the program is helping him achieve a dream he has had since childhood, when he watched his mother struggle with a degenerative disc disease.

“I’d see her in constant pain, and I always appreciated the people who tried to help her,” Williams said. “So, I decided at a young age that I was going to do something to help people with my career.

“I tried a lot of different health care professions: physical therapy, pharmacy, medicine. But then I found dentistry, and it was just the perfect career for me. I’m a very hands-on person, and I like the problem-solving aspect of dentistry. You get to be both a surgeon and a diagnostician.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Williams applied for admission to the UAB SOD. But on the morning of his admissions test, he learned that his grandmother had passed away.

“I didn’t do well on the test,” Williams says. “When I told Dr. McKenzie my story, she was very helpful and supportive. That’s when I learned about Blaze to D.M.D. It was very compassionate of them to still give me a chance to come to UAB, even though my scores weren’t the best. They still saw potential in me and extended this opportunity.”

Osley and Barnes both feel the same way about the program.

“I am so thankful that UAB has given me this opportunity,” says Osley, who majored in Biomedical Science with a Pre-Dental concentration at Auburn University. “I’ve always loved science and have known that I wanted to be in a field where serving my community was the most important principle.”

Barnes agrees. “My ultimate goal as a dentist is to be a health care professional and role model for others, to show that you can achieve your goals through hard work and dedication,” says Barnes, who received his undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences from UAB. “I’m honored to be a part of the inaugural Blaze to D.M.D. program.”

The program is being conducted in partnership with the UAB School of Health Professions Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences (CDS) and the UAB Heersink School of Medicine Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology (CDIB). Utilizing an integrated curriculum modeled after the first two years of the UAB Heersink School of Medicine curriculum, students who complete the program will earn a Master of Science in Biomedical Health Sciences.

“The program is pretty intensive,” says Carmel McNicholas-Bevensee, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Program Co-Director Biomedical and Health Sciences, whose primary appointment is with CDIB. “We’re not trying just to get them into Dental School. We want to make sure that they’re successful once they get there.”

To accomplish that goal, there are elements of the program that extend beyond the basic classroom curriculum.

“The program does many things,” says Jorge Lopez, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Program Co-Director Biomedical and Health Sciences, whose primary appointment is with CDS. “It teaches them how to be organized because time management is essential. It helps with their study habits. We meet with them on a one-on-one basis. We want to help these students, so they can then provide a good service to the Alabama community.”

Indeed, McKenzie says the long-range goal is for the students to hopefully go into practice in areas of the state that have a greater need for dental services, such as rural and minority communities.

“The Blaze to D.M.D. program is a way for us to try to recruit and develop students from the state of Alabama who have a lot of promise,” McKenzie says. “This is part of our mission to support the oral health needs of the communities around us.

“There is a shortage of dentists in many of our communities. We can’t fix that alone, but we’re going to do what we can to make sure we’re admitting qualified students from those areas who want to go back and serve those areas.”

Williams says that is exactly what he plans to do with his degree, be it back home in Eutaw or in another small Alabama town.

“I want to be a general dentist and serve in a rural community,” Williams says. “I know what it’s like to live in a rural community, and I want to make sure that people in those communities have the resources and professionals needed to serve them.”

Which, in the end, can be as important as any test score.