Northern Exposure

17 February, 2012 / Infocus

Having made the move from his childhood home in Kenya back to one of the worst winters in living memory, the new dean of dentistry at Dundee Dental School should have no problem acclimatising to his new position in Tayside.

The son of a colonial police officer, Professor Mark Hector was born in Nairobi and emigrated back to the UK at the age of six when Kenya declared independence in the winter of 1962/63. The contrast between the temperatures of East Africa and a severe British winter were quite drastic, as Prof Hector remembers vividly. He said: “The snow started on Boxing Day and didn’t go away until ı April. Even where we lived in the Bristol Channel it was lying three-feet deep in the garden. So it was an incredible amount of snow.”

So, for the new dean, the contrast between his former life in London and his new one in the picturesque Tayside countryside, should be less of a shock, even if the last two Scottish winters are anything to go by.

After growing up in the West Country, Prof Hector began his academic life as a dental student in London. He enjoyed the scientific side of his studies so much that he took time out of his BDS studies to do a two-year inter-collated degree in physiology before returning to dentistry and qualifying in 1981.

He then spent three years dividing his time between Bristol University and Kings College London (KCL) while studying for his PhD, completing his thesis on the reflexes around salivary glands, specifically the way that receptors in the mouth control secretion around teeth. After finishing his PhD studies he started work in oral medicine and oral pathology at Guy’s Hospital in London, but in order to pursue that any further he would have had to go back and train as a doctor, which didn’t interest him at the time. He was then approached about a job at the London Hospital Medical College (now the Queen Mary University of London).

Prof Hector takes up the story: “The then dean Professor Alan Brook offered me a post as a lecturer, which is what I was after, but in child dental health. At the time children’s dentistry was not on my radar so to speak, but he explained that what he wanted out of the job was not so much the clinical dentistry but the other skills to help support postgraduate teaching.

“So I went along there in early 1987 and it was absolutely brilliant. I enjoyed the clinical work, working with children was fantastic. It has been very, very rewarding.”

He found that the main differences between treating adults and children is mainly down to the ability to communicate and manage behaviour. He said: “You have to spend so much more time preparing children to accept dentistry. It takes a bit longer and there is a bit more patience required to get them to understand what we are trying to do and that it is not going to be too difficult for them.

“So the behaviour management is more difficult, it requires a little more time and patience. With an adult you can negotiate much more easily than you would be able to with a child, particularly younger children.”

Prof Hector explained that in his experience in London many children’s first visit to the dentist was to tackle disease and to take out teeth. He said: “So it wasn’t the greatest start and there is a similar pattern up here.

“But one of the joys of coming to Dundee is the huge expertise in managing dental caries in a very conservative way. Taking a much more biological approach to it as opposed to a technical, reparative one. It’s not all about fillings, it is about the other things that we can do, and the school has a really good reputation for that.”

After nearly 25 years at the Queen Mary, where he moved up the ladder from lecturer, gaining his readership in 200ı and then becoming a professor of oral health of children in 2002, he was approached to take on the role of dean at Dundee. Having worked at Dundee as an external examiner previously he was aware of the school and its well-respected teaching and research reputation, as well as a few familiar faces who he had crossed paths with at Bristol and at KCL.

But, on top of the many draws that Dundee Dental School held for Prof Hector, another driver was his desire to get out of London.

He said: “Not being a Londoner, I’ve never really settled there, so the idea of moving out of London was an appealing one, and it has worked well for the family as well.”

His two eldest sons are at university in Hull and Stirling, while his youngest is still in further education and will move up to Tayside in the summer with Prof Hector’s wife when they have found a house in the area. And, as well as enjoying the easy commute from his rented apartment at the City Quays, which is in stark contrast to the busy traffic and crowded public transport of the UK’s biggest city, he is relishing the opportunity to carry on the good work of his predecessor.

Professor William Saunders enjoyed a decade as dean of dentistry at Dundee, having been appointed in 2000. After stepping down he has reverted back to his research interests, which include endodontics and applied dental materials. Prof Hector said: “I think what Bill has achieved is a very stable and very well regarded school by other UK dental schools. Dundee has always been regarded as a very well-run school producing excellent students.

“It also has quite a focused research agenda and it has a very good reputation. Some schools you don’t hear very much about, but Dundee is very much on the map and that is very good.”

Among his main aims at the school, Prof Hector is keen to expand the range of taught masters programmes offered and he is currently undertaking a redesign of the curriculum to try and reflect the growing emphasis on the dental team and where each member fits into the team. “The dentists will begin to take on the role of team leader,” he explained, “delegating more of the work down to other members of the team. It will make for a more efficient way of working but it is going to require a big sea change in attitudes.”

But, while their jobs may be changing in terms of scope and structure, Prof Hector is optimistic for the futures of the graduates the university is producing.

He said: “I think, at the moment, job prospects are very good and the vast majority will get work. Last year every single graduate got a job, and although that is not guaranteed now, the likelihood is that they will all get jobs.”

When asked what the main differences are between students back in his university days and today, he replied that the people are generally the same, although the academic standards are far higher now. “When I started off I got two Cs and a D at A-Level,” he said. “Whereas the expectation now at A-Level is three As, or Highers five As.

“I actually got in on below offer, I was offered three Cs and got in with two Cs and a D. But these days very few students get offered a place if they don’t get all As.”

However, while in the past dental students were expected to do as many fillings, extractions and make as many dentures as possible, nowadays the emphasis is on gaining competency.

Prof Hector added: “It’s very much a competency-led approach and it is better in many ways because some people learn more quickly than others, some people are gifted with their hands and find the operative work really easy but may struggle a bit with the academic side, while there will be some who are the other way around.

“So this way everyone moves through the course at a slightly different rate. They all have to pitch up at the same exams but if someone is really struggling with something they can take a bit more time on it, and that happens rather more than it used to.”

And, despite his new position, Prof Hector still remains passionate about teaching and hopes to car
ry on lecturing and working with students when everything has settled down. He said: “Teaching is my fundamental reason for staying in a dental school. Whether it is lecturing or working on the clinics, absolutely, that’s what I want to do, that’s what I enjoy doing.

“At the end of the day, it is all about the students. It is why we are here, it is why the hospital is here.

“The dental hospital and all the NHS staff who work within it wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the students. They essentially pay our salaries – so we have to work for them.”

A touch of silver

In his spare time Professor Hector is a silversmith.

He discovered his passion for silver during a dental meeting in Copenhagen. He visited the famous Georg Jensen workshop with his mentor, Prof Declan Anderson, and decided to try and replicate an ornate butter knife that was on display. So, after surreptitiously tracing it’s outline and design on a piece of paper, he returned home to try his hand.

Over the last 25 years he has made a number of retirement gifts for colleagues and even pieces of jewellery for friends and family.

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