Leadership, Priorities and Making a Difference: A Conversation with Dr. Cynthia Wong

May. 5, 2023
The New Pediatric Dentistry Chair Talks Candidly About Her New Role
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Dr. Cynthia Wong, EIOH Pediatric Dentistry Chair

Associate Professor Cynthia Wong DMD, MS (Pedo ’13, MS ‘15) has been named chair of Pediatric Dentistry, Eastman Institute for Oral Health. 

“Her strong leadership and excellent skills as a clinician, educator and researcher will enable her to grow the department amidst the challenges we continue to face post pandemic,” said EIOH Director Eli Eliav, DMD, PhD. “Her dedication to the program has been evident since she was a resident.”

The EIOH program was recently named Best in the U.S., according to 2022 rankings. Dr. Wong has been integral in enriching the program over the last several years, including increased collaborations throughout the University of Rochester Medical Center, curriculum changes to emphasize interdisciplinary collaborations, an enhanced recruitment process and incorporating digital technologies in the classroom and the clinic.

Dr. Wong in the OR with a resident and patient
Dr. Wong teaches residents in the Operating Room

Q. Why did you choose Eastman for your residency? 

A. I learned about Eastman and the great research and education opportunities there when I was in dental school in Montreal. All my pediatric dentistry faculty, as well as my cousin, were trained at Eastman. They firmly believed that Eastman is the place to go if you want the best education in the United States. In addition, the proximity to Montreal helped me with this decision as well. 

As a resident, I learned more about Eastman’s important social responsibility to our community. The culture of service is ingrained at this institution from the days of George Eastman. I enjoy knowing that we are making a difference in our patients' lives. Having worked at most of the Eastman clinical sites, I can say that we do our very best to help our community. Everyone who works at Eastman walks the extra mile to make our patients feel comfortable and listened to.

Q. Any favorite memories as a resident?

A. There are so many great memories during residency. My classmates being one of the greatest memories. The residency is rigorous, but we are a cohesive group. We are also very different in terms of background, past career path and age. However different we are, we have a common goal - to support each other and succeed TOGETHER. We shared our best and worst times both personally and professionally. Till this date, these are still my go-to people to vent when I have a rough day. 

Other favorite memories were bits and pieces of advice from my attending faculty. When I work, I still seem to hear their voices resonate in my head... some of their advice:

" Don't rush. Do your best and the efficiency will come"

" Always position yourself so that you are at your patient's eye level"

" There is always a story behind every action. Patients may be upset today, but you don't know what happened to them that leads to their emotions. Find out what happened."

"You are treating the child as a whole, not just teeth"

Q. What does it mean to you to run the department you were a resident in?

 A. It is an honor to serve in a department that is also my alma mater. There were many intelligent, amazing and reputable chairs (male and female) before me. These are very big shoes to fill. The EIOH raised me professionally and personally through the last decade. There are so many people in this institution who selflessly provided me with the opportunities to grow as a provider and an educator. Serving this department as Chair is my way to give back. This is also a very emotional moment to me, as I now carry the responsibility to bring this department to broader horizon. This is an opportunity that I cherish. I hope help our department develop through our vision: "Promoting healthy oral health in children through service and education". Every child deserves a healthy mouth, and we are here to make a difference.  

Q. Are enhanced collaborations with URMC a priority and if so why?

A. Collaborations with the URMC is our top priority. Many diseases have implications in the mouth. Dentists are often the person who discovers the first signs of a health problem. Being part of a collaborative network of healthcare providers at URMC helps us provide care to the patient holistically. We are very blessed to have a great network of URMC healthcare providers who are very open to work together. I cannot ask for a better group of caring providers than the one here!

Q. What changes in the specialty do you see happening and how will that impact the future of pediatric dentistry education?

A. The profession of Pediatric Dentistry has changed a lot. We have moved on from being a drill-and-fill dentist to a specialist for pediatric oral health. This change of paradigm has brought us to become part of the medical neighborhood. In this collaborative network of healthcare providers, we need to have a comprehensive understanding our role in the overall medical care of the child. We have ramped up our medical education curriculum and help our residents better understand the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. 

Q. Describe briefly the changes you have made already in the program/orientation. 

A. Dental caries (cavities) are much more than just holes in teeth. Dental caries is a disease that is significantly affected by social determinants such as poverty, education and community. Without understanding the social barriers to care, we will never be able to eradicate dental caries. For this reason, we want our residents to feel like they are part of the Rochester community, and not just a resident in transition. During our orientation, our residents understand the social tapestry of Rochester through visiting different Rochester landmarks. Through this activity, they get to know Rochester like a local. That really helps our residents relate to our pediatric patients much better. 

Digital technology is so much more accessible now, and all the information we need is available at the tap of our fingertip. As the population is more informed, our dental education also needs to change. In our residency, we promote critical thinking through case-based learning, reflection and discussion. We utilize the online educational platform to deliver the content of our lectures, so that our residents can have access to that information anytime, anywhere. This optimizes our face-to-face time to discussion and as a result, we find that our residents learn at a much deeper level. 

Dr. Wong standing with Dr. McLaren and Pediatric Dentistry graduate
Each year, Dr. Wong (right) helps distribute certificates to graduates.

Q.  Describe your leadership style. 

 A. My leadership style has evolved quite a bit since I became program director five years ago. I would describe my leadership style as collaborative. I also think that it is important to develop and safeguard relationships we have within and outside our department. I love getting input from others. Often enough, other people may see the same situation differently and can provide solutions that I may not have imagined. Pediatric Dentistry at EIOH is a tightly-knit family. We care for each other's life inside and outside work. We would all do the best we can to support each other’s' success in all aspects of our life. 

Q. Why did you go on for master’s degree?

A. I completed my first GPR residency at Montreal Children's Hospital (McGill University) - where I acquired the skills to treat children. After my first residency, I continued with teaching at the GPR program and undergraduate program while working in private practice. Teaching truly brings me joy. Because I wanted to become an educator, I wanted to be trained properly, and that’s when I decided that it was time to apply to the EIOH Pediatric Dentistry Residency. 

During my interview with Drs. Caton and Berkowitz, they asked me why I want to do pediatric dentistry - as I already had the clinical skills to work with children. I told them if I am working on a patient, I can only change one smile at a time. If I teach residents, I can help improve many more smiles at a time. The clinical impact is much bigger! I would like to make a larger impact on our pediatric community's wellbeing.

During the interview, they helped me understand that research is an important component if I want to make an even more significant impact on our patients’ wellbeing. As I had absolutely no research background, the MS program would help me establish a good foundation to become a well-rounded academician/ researcher. With Dr. Caton's support, I embarked on my post-graduate journey. I was the first resident in pediatric dentistry pursuing the peds residency/ MS combined program. 

This MS program opened my horizons on clinical research - an aspect I thought I would never be interested in. I discovered that I CAN be the forefront of science. I can be the person who finds better clinical solutions for our patients, rather than ones who follow what's new in the industry. This program also helps me discover my interest in collaborating with other departments. I had the pleasure to collaborate with different departments in medicine and engineering. It is mind boggling how much we don't know about each other's fields and the endless possibilities for collaboration! I am fascinated with all the things we can do better. A lot of people say that if a process is working, why change? My question for them is why can't it be even better? Meliora - ever better!

Q. Describe why teaching is important to you and what you get out of it.

A. I would like to use the word "coaching" rather than "teaching". Teaching seems to be too one-directional - teacher to the learner. Whereas coaching is bidirectional - the coach also learns while he/she/they coaches. While I love giving residents my best clinical tricks, I learn from each of them. Many things that I do every day come from what I learn from my residents. Being a coach, I would like to help guide residents to their full potential - and often enough, they become even better than the coach! I learn every day, and that is why I'm in academia. 

Q. Describe why research is important to you and what you get out of it.

A. Research is crucial for bringing better solutions to everyday problems. We all know that dental caries is a preventable disease, but we have yet to find the perfect recipe to manage the disease effectively. Research helps me to think out of the box - collaborating with people who are completely unrelated to this field. 
One great example is the research from University of Illinois during COVID when we were worried about COVID transmission from water aerosol from our dental units. The dentistry department at UI collaborated with their engineering department. They found that placing a polymer (that would not be harmful to the body) into the water system suppresses water breakup and decreases aerosol! Those collaborations are the most fascinating!

Q. Who inspires you?

A. There are many people who inspired me and guided me through my career path. Each of them taught me to become who I am today. They encouraged me to reach for something I had never thought I could achieve. My original intention entering academia was to be able to inspire the next generation of dental professionals. Those mentors have opened my horizon to much more. 

I hate to miss many others who have helped me, but these are some of them:  

  • Dr. Duy-Dat Vu - My program director at Montreal Children's. He taught me to lead by example - only when you do great work that you can inspire others.
  • Dr. Jack Caton - He inspired me to pursue this Master's combined degree. His experience and critical mind for clinical research always amazes me. 
  • Dr. Robert Berkowitz - He was a very tough teacher. He expected that we deliver the best quality work. He challenged me constantly, and always told me that I should keep a curious mind and the importance of lifelong learning. 
  • Dr. David Levy - He is the encyclopedia of the department. He knows basically EVERYTHING. He taught me that we should always think the best of everyone first, before making a judgment. He taught me all about empathy and the understanding that there is always a flip side of a coin. 
  • Dr. Eli Eliav - He is a very supportive leader. He believed in me in times that I didn’t even believe in myself. He taught me to maintain my values while being flexible to changes of the terrain. He supports his faculty not for his own benefit, but for the success and happiness of his faculty members. 

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A. "The elevator to success does not exist. Take the stairs instead!"