East Carolina University dental students practiced what they learned in a dental simulation lab Sept. 30. (Video and photos by Cliff Hollis)

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Dental students hone skills in simulation lab

By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services

In a new laboratory Sept. 30, students at the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine got the chance to practice what they’ve been learning.

Students were performing the time-honored lab activity of waxing a maxillary central incisor – one of the upper front teeth. They flowed wax into a broken section of tooth, the first step in the process of creating a mold to build crown.

Students said they were glad to be working in the lab. “It’s exciting,” said Mark Dobransky of Edenton, who received his undergraduate degree from ECU in 2009. “We’ve had the didactic coursework, so it’s nice to get some hands-on to go with the coursework.”

This first day in the simulation lab is one of several milestones being marked during this first year of studies by ECU’s new dental students.

Dentists don’t use the wax technique much anymore; crown work is sent to specialized labs. But the process is good practice for developing skills dentists need, such as hand-eye coordination, matching contours and appraising their own work. It also helps students practice their dental vocabulary.
ECU dental student Alex Crisp works on building a crown in ECU's dental simulation lab.

“It’s a whole different set of challenges from the didactic,” said Dr. Geralyn Crain, assistant dean for academic support and faculty development. 

“Then you will feel another different set when you move into the clinic with patients. These are foundational skills we are developing to actually learn the dental procedures. We set foundational skills and then build on it.”

She walked around the room, answering student questions and helping them gauge their work.

“It’s very rewarding to see when the students are developing the skills and the confidence,” she said.

Dr. Linc Conn, associate professor and chair of general dentistry, led the laboratory assignment. With polished precision, he demonstrated how to hold the dentiform (the simulated jaws and teeth students were working on) and shaping instruments and how to shave off tiny amounts of wax to fine-tune contours. He helped students evaluate their work and troubleshoot their wax-heating torches.

“Look at the tooth next door and make it look like that,” he told students. He then added, “Someday, four years from now, there will be no one over their shoulder, and they’ll want to create a restoration for their patient with correct contours.”

Built on the second floor of the Brody Medical Sciences Building in space formerly occupied by the Laupus Library, the laboratory has 56 stations plus the instructor station. It’s equipped with various simulators, dental lights at each station, cameras, video monitors and more.

The lab cost approximately $1.4 million, said Dr. Frank Serio, interim vice dean and associate dean for clinical affairs. “There may be a couple of schools (usually brand new) that have equipment that is as nice, but I can assure you that there is no school in the country better equipped than ECU,” Serio said in an email.

Students appeared pleased. “It’s always nice using brand new stuff,” said Alex Crisp of Burlington. “The new equipment is high-tech and really good.”

They will be working in the lab a couple of days a week or more for the rest of the academic year, Conn said.

That should suit student Hanna Zombek of Clayton. She spent six years as a dental assistant, so she’s looking forward to more lab work and eventually getting into the clinic. “I love doing things with my hands, and I love patients,” she said.


Students Hanna Zombek, Kimberly Vinson and Johnathan Weisner, left to right, work with Dr. Linc Conn, associate professor and chair of general dentistry in the ECU School of Dental Medicine.