40th Commencement Ceremony
UCLA School of Dentistry's
June 3, 2007
Royce Hall, 10:00 a.m.
Keynote Speaker: Gerald S. Levey, M.D., vice chancellor of medical sciences and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Thank you, Dean Park. It is an honor to have been asked to deliver this commencement address to you, the 40th graduating class of the UCLA School of Dentistry.
Last December, Dr. Park and I were having lunch together in the hospital cafeteria, when he invited me to be the commencement speaker for this year’s graduating class. My initial reaction was “you have got to be kidding me, what will I talk about?” I pondered what the Dean of the School of Medicine could possibly say that would be of interest to graduating dental students. Running through my head was the typical dialogue I had had with my dentists over the years: “Will it hurt?”, “Yes, I floss once a day and brush twice a day”, and “Oh no do I really have to have a root canal?” Nevertheless, when I returned to my office I knew that I would have to do this since I couldn’t turn down my good friend.
Once I began to reflect on what I wanted to say to you, I realized there was actually quite a bit. However, don’t worry; I will limit my remarks so as not to bore you with a bombastic, preachy and lengthy commencement address that will be quickly forgotten. Instead, I will focus on your heritage, your school, and the special relationship between medicine and dentistry, finishing with a few take-home messages. And I plan to do all this in about 15 minutes or as Yogi Berra says, “I’ll try to keep this short as long as I can.”
In order to prepare my remarks, I requested and received the demographics of your class. There are 98 members of the Class of 2007. Sixty are women, 38 are men. You are a diverse group: 48 of you are Asian American, 37 Caucasian, 7 Hispanic, 4 Filipino, and 2 African American. We are a country of immigrants but what makes your class really remarkable is that forty-eight of you were born in one of 18 other countries and another 24 were born in the United States of immigrant parents, making you first generation Americans. Many of you and your families who emigrated, did so under difficult circumstances similar to all immigrant groups that have come to the United States. Whether you came from Malaysia or Mexico, the Philippines or Poland, Taiwan or Turkey, someone in your family made the decision that the United States was a place to better your lives. Your parents, grandparents, or great grandparents envisioned America as a safe haven-- a land of opportunity. And they were right. We are a rainbow of diversity-- a land where the former and current Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are African Americans, where a Hispanic, Antonio Villaraigosa, is the Mayor of Los Angeles, and where Latinos fill many prominent positions in all walks of life. We are free to worship as we please without interference from the government. Our history books are filled with success stories about Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims and members of other religions.
You and I share a common bond. My story is your story only change the time and the countries. I am a first generation American. My father was born in Russia in 1904 and came here as a young boy. My mother’s family was from Poland. Their families left their countries because of discrimination and the attempt to destroy the Jewish population of Eastern Europe. My father was the youngest of seven children and his older siblings sent him to college. He went to night school to study law, graduating first in his class in Constitutional Law. Unfortunately, he died when I was a teenager and he was never able to experience the joy of every parent which is to see their children succeed. My mother, who had a high school education, put me through school working as a secretary in Jersey City, New Jersey. I will never forget my humble beginnings and her sacrifices and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have received in this country. Where else could someone who is Jewish, achieve what I have achieved, given the discrimination that we have faced over the years?
Similarly, your families have created a new and productive life in the United States. And because of that you have been able to pursue your education. By virtue of your hard work alone, the doors of the University of California were open to you.
I am confident that because of your talents, your dedication, the love of your family, and the outstanding training you have received at the UCLA School of Dentistry, you will succeed as well. This could only happen in America. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” You have been judged by the content of your character.
The School of Dentistry, soon to be your alma mater, is now officially 40 years old. As dental schools go, your school is young. Yet the UCLA School of Dentistry has been a real success story, its history very similar and closely linked to that of the medical school. The founding Dean of the school was Dr. Reidar Sognnaes who was recruited to UCLA from the Harvard School of Dentistry in 1960 by Dr. Stafford Warren, the founding Dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. Dr. Sognnaes was impressed both with the close proximity of faculty from every scientific discipline imaginable and with the intellectual incubator that characterized UCLA. He arrived July 1, 1960 and, much like Stafford Warren in 1947, set about to build the dental school piece by piece. He immersed himself in setting goals, reviewing architectural drawings for the new school, and dreaming about the education and academic programs to be put in place. Dr. Sognnaes was certain the School of Dentistry would be both special and successful, specifically because of several opportunities that the campus provided. First, he recognized that the Biomedical Library, located as it was in the heart of the medical area, should be near the new school. This was probably the most influential factor that determined the new school’s current location. Second, he was intrigued by the Warren concept of locating the School of Dentistry next to the medical school in close proximity to the basic sciences and the hospital. He was convinced that dental education and research must be part of a Center for the Health Sciences; that any first-rate School of Dentistry needed to be science-based; and that research would not only drive extraordinary patient care, but also attract the best students and faculty. Every successive dean of the School of Dentistry, and there have been six, have embraced Dr. Sognnaes’s vision. My close colleague Dr. Park embodies a passionate commitment to the linkage between scientific excellence and the best in dental care and this influences his thinking regarding dental practice, research, and education every day.
Having visionaries such as Dr. Stafford Warren and Dr. Reidar Sognnaes, boded well for the futures of both of our schools. It is no wonder we both rank in the very top echelons of our competitors nationally. The accomplishments of the School of Dentistry should fill you, your parents, and your loved ones with pride. The forty graduating classes have resulted in the training of approximately 3,400 dentists. Although there is no official ranking, the UCLA School of Dentistry is considered by peers to be among the top 5 of the 54 dental schools in the country. The School of Dentistry ranks 7th nationally in the number of research grants received by its faculty. The students in the school are among the most academically accomplished of the 54 schools of dentistry with dental aptitude scores exceeding the 95th percentile. I congratulate Dean Park, the faculty, and their predecessors who have done such a wonderful job establishing a school of excellence with the highest caliber students.
I would now like to comment on the close partnership between the practices of medicine and dentistry. First a bit of history. I did part of my medical training at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and spent many hours in the amphitheater known as the Ether Dome. The Ether Dome has been declared a historical landmark in the United States because it was there that William Morton was responsible for the first successful public demonstration of ether as an inhalation anesthetic. Morton, considered to be the discoverer of anesthesia, was a dentist by profession, having graduated from the Baltimore Dental College in 1842. In the autumn of 1844 Morton enrolled in the Harvard Medical School. On September 30, 1846, while a medical student, and as a fully trained dentist, Morton performed a painless tooth extraction after administering ether to a patient. Two weeks later, on October 16, again in the Ether Dome, Dr. John Collins Warren painlessly removed a tumor from the neck of a patient under ether anesthesia. A new era of medicine was born thanks to a dentist.
There are many other associations between dentistry and medicine and I think it is important for you to recognize these synergies with your medical colleagues. As dentists you are experts in the area of the oral cavity and its contents; you will frequently be the first ones to observe the oral manifestations of systemic disease. As you examine your patients’ mouths you will be in the position to see the tell-tale signs of various diseases including vitamin deficiencies, hyperparathyroidism, bacterial, fungal and viral infections, diabetes mellitus, and various cancers. Therefore, at the same time that you are managing your patients’ oral health, you may be in a position to significantly impact their general health in terms of early detection of medical conditions. In a more specialized area, maxillofacial specialists and plastic surgeons partner to work miracles on a daily basis rebuilding cleft palates and other structural defects.
Both of our disciplines, medicine and dentistry, also share a common future in large part due to the deciphering of the human genome. As more is learned about the workings of genes and how various deletions and mutations alter the normal functioning of living, normal tissues, the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases including those traditionally in the sphere of dentistry, will be more gene focused. This new era of genetic medicine that has been called “personalized, predictive and preventive medicine” will change how the practices of medicine and dentistry are conducted in the coming decades. This will impact your professional life by requiring you to make this adaptation to gene medicine. For example, the treatment of various bacterial diseases will be based upon knowledge gleaned from the sequencing of the genome of various bacteria and will utilize specially-designed antibiotics to destroy them or render them harmless. The impact of this on the treatment of dental caries and periodontal disease will be profound. I can also speculate that during your careers you will utilize genetic engineering to repair various dental tissues such as pulp, dentin and enamel. What a promising, stimulating and exciting time to begin your careers.
At the risk of violating my promise made at the beginning of this address, I want to conclude with a few take-home messages: First, you must give back to your community. Your new role of prominence puts you in a position to do so and I hope all of you will be generous with your time and personal resources by helping those who are less fortunate. Being good citizens requires caring about this country; help secure its future and vote in elections. Voting is a responsibility that helps ensure the freedom that we cherish.
Second, remember your commitment to your patients. The degree you will receive today mandates a life of service to them. You must be dedicated, work hard, be respectful, honest and ethical. How you conduct yourselves vis-à-vis your patients will define the content of your character throughout your entire lives.
Third, as alumni, hold the school in a special place in your hearts. Return to campus and teach in clinics; undertake a fundraising campaign for a class scholarship or two to provide the opportunity that you have had to future students. Remember your teachers. They worked hard to make you a dentist; thank them, if not personally, then in your hearts. You are indelibly linked together for a lifetime because you are their legacy.
Last and certainly not least, love and respect your parents and others in your family who ultimately made all of this possible.
In closing, I congratulate the class of 2007, your parents, and all of your family and friends who are here today. Thank you for letting me share this joyous milestone in your lives.
God bless all of you.