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It often helps for a dentist to hear the words coming out of a patient’s mouth before venturing inside it. After all, it is important to discern what a patient is experiencing in order to best treat the situation.

Japanese Exchange Program Group Photo“You need to be able to treat everyone equally, while still trying to see things from their individual point of view,” says Jacob Martin, a fourth-year student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry (SOD). “That’s something that gets engrained into you here at UAB.”

One way to train for that is to spend an extended period of time with people from a foreign country who speak another language and come from a different cultural background. That is exactly what Martin and nine of his fourth-year classmates did in August as part as of the SOD’s student exchange program with Japan.

Ten Japanese dental students and two faculty members spent a week in Birmingham with an equal number of fourth-year SOD students and faculty – Edward Bradford, D.D.S., M.P.H. and Augusto Robles, D.D.S., M.S., D.M.D. – who will make their own trip to Japan next spring. While these types of programs are, in many ways, as much about cultural exchange and global connections as they are about dental education, Martin says the experience can be beneficial to the SOD students’ future careers.

“Any experience that lets you learn how to communicate with people in a new way can shape you, from a dental perspective, into being a more understanding clinician who is better able to serve any individual who might come through your door,” Martin says. “I jump at any opportunity to experience something new when interacting with individuals.”

Going back to its founding dean, the SOD has an extensive history of such international partnerships. These include student exchange programs with Taiwan, Thailand and France, among others.

During the recent visit to Birmingham, the Japanese dental students were able to shadow the UAB students while they were performing clinic duties. Martin says that was of particular interest to the Japanese students, because they don’t have a clinical component to their dental education in Japan.

“They were shocked that we did clinical work,” Martin says. “Since the students don’t do any dental practice in Japan until they graduate, it is amazing to them when they come here and see dental students already practicing dentistry.”

But Martin says the goal was also for the Japanese students to “experience America and Southern hospitality.” So not only did the group spend time in Birmingham taking in the sights (including the requisite trip to Vulcan Park), they also made day trips to Atlanta (the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium), Huntsville (the U.S. Space & Rocket Center), and a Trash Pandas vs. Birmingham Barons baseball game.

The week began with a welcome luncheon from SOD interim dean Nicolaas Geurs, D.D.S., M.S., and concluded with a farewell dinner that Geurs also attended. In between, there was a meet-and-greet that was open to all SOD students, as well as numerous activities designed to illustrate what life is life for a typical American student. These included a visit to an outlet mall, burgers and fries at lunch, and a trip to the grocery store (Martin says one student wanted to take back a dozen boxes of Froot Loops for his family).

The UAB SOD students will have a chance to create their own international memories when they travel to Japan next spring, with the same Japanese students and faculty who came to Birmingham serving as hosts. Martin says he has traveled to Asia before, but anticipates that this trip will be special because of the personal connections developed with the Japanese students.

“I’m very excited for them to show me their home country,” Martin says. “As a tourist, you only see what the tourist-side of a country has to offer. You’re limited in where you can go. But being able to go to these countries and have friends who are fluent in the language and have lived there their whole lives, you get to see a different side of a culture that most tourists would never be exposed to. So you truly get to have that cultural exchange with this program.

“I’m also excited to go with my classmates on the trip and get to hang out together with them. Dental school is pretty rigorous. We’ve all worked really hard to get to this point. Taking this amazing trip together and having memories of that experience after graduation is going to be a really awesome way to end our four years of dental school.”

The memories – and the global connections – will last a lifetime.


UAB students participating in the exchange are Nina Bidikov, Julie Duchock, Jean Jiang, Dara Johnson, Divya Madiraju, Jacob Martin, Zoie McIntosh, Heath Padgett, Tara Runyan, and Noopur Shah.