UAB’s new Blaze to DMD program helps student achieve dream of going into medical field

The Blaze to DMD program is an 11-month master’s program designed to help students establish a strong foundation in biomedical and health sciences in preparation for a traditional four-year DMD degree.

thumbnail IMG 0157Emmanuel WilliamsAfter taking on a caregiver role when his family suffered from health problems, Emmanuel Williams decided he wanted to go into the health care field. This month, Williams will be one step closer to achieving this dream as one of the first graduates of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry’s Blaze to DMD program

The Blaze to DMD program — a partnership between the UAB SOD and UAB School of Health Professions — is an 11-month master’s program designed to help students establish a strong foundation in biomedical and health sciences in preparation for a traditional four-year DMD degree, also known as a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree. This program provides a pathway for promising new dental students who have plenty of potential to succeed in the profession but would benefit from an additional preparatory year.

“The UAB SOD 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,” said 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.”

Williams was one of those applicants. His dream of being in the health care field began at a young age.

“I’d see my mom in constant pain, and I always appreciated the people who tried to help her, so I decided at a young age that I was going to do something to help people with my career,” Williams said. “When I was in high school, my grandmother had a stroke, and I helped take care of her. At that point, I felt like God was calling me into health care.”

Williams shadowed physicians in many different professions, including physical therapy, pharmacy and medicine; but after finding dentistry, he decided dentistry was the profession he wanted to pursue.  

“Although each of the professions was interesting, observing the way dentists interacted with patients and noticing their ability and effectiveness in solving problems really piqued my interest,” Williams said. “With dentistry, you get to be both a surgeon and a diagnostician.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree in biology from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Williams applied for admission to the UAB School of Dentistry. But on the morning of his admissions test, a challenging standardized test, he learned his grandmother had passed away.

“I didn’t do well on the test,” Williams said. “When I told Dr. McKenzie my story, she was very helpful and supportive. That’s when I learned about Blaze to DMD. She told me this was the first year they were doing the program and thought I would be a good candidate. I remember she called me on a Friday, and I was smiling from ear to ear all weekend.”

McKenzie says the program allows UAB SOD to admit high-potential applicants to dental school with the expectation that they will grow the necessary skills during the one-year master’s program on the front end. After this development year, students are well prepared and ready to enter dental school. The program is aimed particularly at students who come from backgrounds that have often been underrepresented in dentistry, including rural areas, racial and ethnic minorities, and economically disadvantaged groups.

“The profession needs more dentists from historically underrepresented populations,” McKenzie said. “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 DMD program is a way to do that.”

McKenzie says the long-range goal is for the students to 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 DMD program will help us recruit and develop students from the state of Alabama who have a lot of promise,” McKenzie said. “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, and while the SOD alone cannot fix that, we are 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 said. “I know what it’s like to live in a rural community, and I want to make sure people in those communities have the resources and professionals needed to serve them.”

Williams says the most rewarding part of the program was seeing his growth academically.

“Although this program is not easy, I know that going into dental school, I deserve to be there,” Williams said. “I am honored that UAB SOD selected me for this opportunity, even though my test scores were not the best. They still saw potential in me, and I am very motivated to prove to them that they made the right decision.”