Anyone who has ever met Carlo Ercoli knows how much he loves to talk, especially when it’s something he’s passionate about –mainly his family, his students, and his profession.
But when Dr. Nadim Baba, Immediate Past President of the American College of Prosthodontists called to tell him he was unanimously named Educator of the Year, Dr. Ercoli was literally speechless.
“I took him by complete surprise, he couldn’t speak,” recalled Dr. Baba, who chaired the nominating committee.
Each year, the ACP awards an exceptional dental educator who is widely known and respected for his or her outstanding skills and contributions to prosthodontic education, the specialty and the college.
“Carlo is an amazing educator and an amazing person, and his dedication is really rare,” said Dr. Baba. “He is so much in love with what he does, and is such a perfectionist.”
This award is especially fitting for someone who loves to teach, but also strongly believes--as Carlo emphatically does--that one should never stop learning.
It started in 1994, when Carlo’s parents spent their life savings to send him to the U.S. for the Eastman Institute prosthodontics program after earning his dental degree in their native Italy.
Initially, his plan was to return to Italy to work in private practice, but decided to stay another year to take the Orofacial Pain and Temporomandibular Joint Disorders residency program. That’s when the chair of the Prosthodontics Department, Dr. Gerald Graser, asked him to stay.
After much heart-wrenching consideration, he enrolled in Eastman’s Advanced Education for General Dentistry program, required for international students who want to practice and teach in the U.S., in addition to applying for his Green Card. He was also awarded four Implant Research Fellowships, and conducted research in microbiology with Dr. Robert Marquis, whom Carlo remembers as a true gentleman and excellent teacher. By 1999, it all came together and he became faculty at Eastman.
“The three pillars of the university’s mission embody everything I love – teaching, research and patient care,” Carlo said about why he decided to stay. By 2001, he was appointed Program Director, followed by the Gerald N. Graser Implant Fellowship Director in 2004, and finally Chair in 2006.
From chairside manners to the technical intricacies of the specialty, Dr. Ercoli’s influence remains with his students, long after graduation.
“Thanks to Dr. Ercoli, I always know how to act and react when with a patient, in both easy and especially difficult circumstances,” said Dr. Erna Run Einarsdottir (Prostho ’15, Graser Fellow ‘16). “Dr. Ercoli pushed me every day to do my best, and helped me become a successful prosthodontist and educator. His humbleness and kindness are something I strive for and hope to achieve in my career.”
For Dr. Francisco Cortes (Prostho ’08, Graser Fellow ’09), it was the challenging laboratory work he remembers. “Learning to design and build a three-unit bridge framework with Dr. Ercoli allowed me to visualize the importance of proper axial reduction on anterior and other teeth,” he said. “Most important, he taught me about the consequences of under reduced preps. To this day, the learning experience is invaluable.”
“Carlo is a truly a remarkable teacher and the kindest person I have met,” said Dr. Sharath Chedella (Prostho ‘16). “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t remember him. I am sure I am not the only person whose life was changed for good, and I’m forever thankful.”
“Carlo is a true professional, and is a caring and friendly professor and clinician,” added Dr. Cortes. “His family is always a priority for him, including his Eastman family.”
When asked about his approach to teaching, Carlo leaned in and began talking a little faster.
“There are two types of instructors,” he started. “There’s one where the instructor thinks he or she knows everything, resulting in the knowledge flowing in one direction, which makes the whole system inefficient.
“Then, there’s the type who facilitates and helps frame the knowledge,” he continued. “Here, the knowledge flows in every direction and teacher and student benefit from it. I always strive to be the second type, because it works much better and it is more fun for all involved.
“I love the type of student who is excited and passionate to learn,” added Carlo. “A student who is smart, thinks on their feet and proves me wrong makes me smile and proud! And that’s why I also love to learn. I like everything I don’t know, and it excites me to learn new things.”
Carlo tells his students that they generally begin the program with lots of answers and only a few questions. “A good teacher, in my opinion,” Carlo explained, “is the one who is able to reverse the question and answer ratio and teach them to be comfortable with the ambiguity of not knowing, as here the learning really starts.”
Carlo encourages this mindset with his students by encouraging them to always try new ideas. Some may be disastrous, but eventually there will be the one that’s a blockbuster.
Carlo’s pursuit of continued learning and professional development led to a certificate in Periodontics in 2012, under the leadership of Dr. Jack Caton, and Board Certification in 2014, in addition to his Board Certification in Prosthodontics. He is widely published in prosthodontic and dental implant literature, conducts in-vitro and clinical research and became full professor in 2012 in the Teacher, Scholar and Clinician Tenure Track. One of his more challenging accomplishments was recently earning a Master of Business Administration at UR’s Simon School of Business.
“Earning my MBA has been immensely rewarding,” said Carlo, who spent every weekend in his basement studying for the first six months. “While it was an enormous amount of extra work, it has given me the ability to look at leadership, management and operations from different angles and in a totally new light. It has been a wonderful experience.”
Carlo’s interest in education and educating extends beyond the EIOH Prosthodontic Department. As one of the many contributions that earned him the Educator of the Year honor, Dr. Baba said that Carlo put together “the best meeting ACP has ever had.” Dr. Ercoli raised the bar for the annual meeting by bringing in renowned experts and speakers locally and globally, who represented a wide range of subspecialties and topics.
“He never stops working, never complains and is very responsive,” Dr. Baba added.
One of his patients, unaware he was in Africa on a missions trip providing dental services to indigent communities, texted him when she was having a problem. He responded within hours and connected her to a provider who could help while he was away.
When learning about the award left him momentarily speechless, he later explained that he was so taken aback that he was selected among some 4,500 prosthodontists in the U.S. “It’s such an incredible honor,” he said.
But still, Carlo doesn’t place the Educator of the Year Award highest on his list of proudest achievements.
Instead, it was this year’s virtual Prosthodontic Department graduation ceremony, where alumni from around the world joined in real time via Zoom to reflect and congratulate the class of 2020. The faces of all the department’s alumni were projected on a large screen during the socially distanced ceremony.
“For me, the event clearly demonstrated the commitment to this awesome program that Allen Brewer and Jerry Graser worked so hard to build,” he said. “I’m proud to be able to continue in that role, and to work with the large group of alumni who are so committed to our Prosthodontic family, and who have all given their time, talent and treasure to continually improve the program.”
“At a certain point, I am going to be history at Eastman,” he said. “But the most important thing to me when I look back, is that I hopefully left the place better than I found it.”