Student Profile: Oluwatobi Dauda, Class of 2024 – How dental surgery led to dental school9 min read
This profile is one in an ongoing series highlighting School of Dentistry alumni, donors and students.
Oluwatobi Dauda is a University of Michigan dental student who had not considered dentistry as a career even as she started college. Her dentist appointments during her childhood had always been regular check-ups and cleanings that were mundane with few problems, nothing to get excited about.
Then, during the summer after her freshman year in college, a dental appointment turned out to be life-changing. As she describes it: “One day something popped up on my x-rays.” It was a lesion that a biopsy confirmed was odontogenic myxoma, a benign but aggressive tumor in her lower jaw.
Such tumors grow significantly larger with time. The treatment sounded scary: To remove the tumor, an oral surgeon would need to remove several of her lower front teeth and reconstruct her jaw, possibly using bone from her hip. The surgery didn’t need to be immediate, so Tobi (as her family and friends call her) went back to Michigan State University for her sophomore year. She admits that she tried to avoid thinking about the inevitable major surgery and follow-up of extensive dental work that would be required.
A phone call from her mother a few months later jolted Tobi back to the reality of needing to make a decision on the surgery. Tobi and her parents decided to obtain a second opinion, which confirmed the original surgical diagnosis, with a slight and beneficial change in that a cadaver bone could be used for reconstructing her jaw instead of requiring a second surgical procedure to take part of Tobi’s own hip bone.
The major surgery was completed during the summer before Tobi’s junior year of college and it went well, though extensive face swelling left Tobi unable to recognize herself in the mirror for several weeks afterward. Six of her lower front teeth were removed during the procedure, which meant the initial surgery was also only the start of what ended up being nearly four years of additional dental procedures. Her surgeon needed to ensure the tumor was gone and that the jaw was healing properly, while a general dentist created a temporary partial denture, a periodontist eventually replaced her missing teeth with implants and a prosthodontist did the final prothesis.
The life-changing part of the story is how the long series of dental appointments and procedures affected Tobi’s choice of a career. Near the end of high school in Detroit and the beginning of college at MSU, Tobi had considered a medical career. She volunteered in emergency clinics, shadowed doctors and thought she might be headed for medical school. However, even before her dental surgery, she had cooled to that idea after she realized that she wasn’t “moved” by what she had experienced in the medical settings.
By contrast, as she endured the many appointments before and after her dental surgery, she was drawn into dentistry. She listened closely as the surgical team and dentists around her discussed the case, the options and the solutions. She found it fascinating, despite the fact they were talking about difficult procedures she would have to undergo. “The appointments were fun to me. I thought it was kind of cool. I asked questions and listened in on conversations.”
She said the surgery team who provided the second opinion about the tumor procedure understood how traumatic the prospect of major oral surgery was for a college student who was still a teenager. The surgeon said the team would attempt to do all the work on the inside of her mouth so there would be no scarring on the outside. “They were calm and understanding about the situation. The care and compassion that the team showed me is why we decided to go with them,” she said.
Tobi laughs at the memory of a conversation with her mother after one of the many appointments. “I was driving home with my Mom and I said, ‘I think I want to be a dentist.’ And she said, ‘I knew you were going to say that.’”
Not only were the technical dental procedures interesting to her, but she was moved by the people skills exhibited by her dental providers. “The care, compassion and empathy that the team showed me was a big part of the reason I decided to go into dentistry,” she says.
Also helping with her decision was her general dentist, Dr. Janelle Cooper, a 2015 graduate of the U-M dental school who is now a resident in Dental Public Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Tobi spent time observing at Cooper’s practice and over time Cooper became a mentor. “I remember telling Dr. Cooper, ‘I think I want to do this dental thing.’ And she said, ‘OK, here’s the lowdown. Here’s really what you are getting yourself into.’ She told me and I decided, ‘I think I can handle it.’”
After graduating from MSU, Tobi took a gap year while applying to dental schools and was part of the U-M dental school’s Profile for Success Program in the summer of 2019. The program provides tutoring to undergraduate students who will be taking the general dental school entrance exam and acquaints participants with various aspects of dental school and dentistry.
Tobi’s familiarity with the U-M dental school because of the PFS program was a major factor in accepting admission to the school. She and her classmates in the Class of 2024 got off to a strange start because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They started dental school in the spring of 2020 on Zoom from their homes around the country, not arriving in person until the end of August rather than the normal June arrival. Over the last three years, as the normal dental school routine slowly returned, Tobi says there were good lessons to be learned from the pandemic hardship. “I don’t want to say that I’m thankful for that part of my dental education,” she said, “but I appreciate it because it taught me how to adapt to different situations that are thrown at you.”
Among the difficulties she faced as she adapted to the rigors of dental school academics was at the same time completing the final parts of her treatment for her tumor surgery from three years earlier. The last major steps – dental implants and the final prosthesis – were completed in the spring of her second year in dental school and at the end of that year.
Dealing with all the competing challenges was helped by the camaraderie of classmates. Tobi’s mentor, Dr. Cooper, was also a resource. Another excellent support system, she said, is the U-M chapter of the Student National Dental Association. SNDA promotes and supports the academic and social environment of underrepresented students in dental schools while advocating for diversity in the dentistry profession. It establishes opportunities for members to develop a sense of community, to explore leadership opportunities and to serve disadvantaged communities. Tobi is president of the U-M chapter this year and held other offices in previous years as the group organized events for pre-dental students, community service projects, a mentoring network and social events for members. She also was the recording secretary of the national SNDA from 2022-23, helping plan the national conference last summer.
“SNDA has been arguably one of my favorite parts of dental school,” Tobi said. “It has given me a place of belonging. The relationships that I have made in SNDA will be for a lifetime. SNDA has given me mentors, mentees and opportunities to grow as a leader and a student dentist.”
Tobi also participated in the dental school’s Global Initiatives in Oral and Craniofacial Health. She traveled with faculty and a small group of students to Kenya earlier this year where they delivered preventive and minimally invasive caries interventions to school children. The program contributes to the oral health needs in low-income areas and provides important learning and cultural competency opportunities for the dental students.
This wasn’t her first international experience. Tobi is part of a family with Nigerian roots. After her father came to the U.S. for college, her parents stayed in Detroit as they raised Tobi, her two brothers and her sister. When Tobi was 11-years-old, her parents decided to move the family to Nigeria to meet their large extended family. They lived there for four years before returning to Detroit. “My mom wanted us to learn the culture, get the best of both worlds, get an immersive experience to understand where we came from so we would be appreciative of what we have,” Tobi said.
Looking to the future after she graduates next May, Tobi said she wants to spend a year in a General Practice Residency where she can continue to expand her skills and learn more about the various dental specialties, several of which she already encountered during her surgery and recovery.
“I’ll use the year to see if I like everything or if I love something enough to just focus in on that one thing,” she said. “I want to have a good reason for wanting to pursue whatever it is. But I feel like I have all good options.”
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at email@example.com, or (734) 615-1971.