As his mother tells it, 3-year-old David Felton was a decisive fellow. Upon returning from visiting a family friend's dental practice in Charlotte, N.C., he announced, “I've decided I want to be a dentist when I grow up because all they do is sit around and make money.”
Dr. David Felton, newly appointed dean to the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry, doesn't remember it exactly the way his 94-year-old mother told the story when they were visiting his hometown of Garner, N.C. recently.
“I've wanted to be a dentist for as long as I can remember,” said Felton. “I'll take her word for it.”
How many professionals can say that the career they dreamed of at three was the final choice and the career that made them happy?
“I love what I do," said Felton. “I love dentistry, but I really love academic dentistry.”
Felton said that he got into academic dentistry “by chance, by pure luck.”
“I had always wanted to run a practice as a general dentist. I never knew anything else that I wanted to do,” said Felton.
Upon graduation, he signed a lease on a piece of property in Raleigh. The contractor had two years to build his office on the lease. While waiting for construction to begin, Felton accepted a one-year appointment in the Department of Prosthodontics at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.
“At the end of my first year working for the school, the contractor still had not started the construction project, so I renewed the appointment for a second year,” said Felton.
Halfway through the second year, Felton was offered a full-time position by the school. On his way home that day, he noticed work had finally begun on his rental property. The contractor was digging footings for the new office. When Felton told the contractor that he had been offered a full-time position at the school, the man informed Felton he'd have to pay the rent whether he was in the building or not.
“I had a 24 month completion clause in my contract, and he had beaten it by three days,” said Felton. “I ended up leaving academics and went into private practice for three years.”
Although Felton was still able to teach part time, his heart was not in private practice.
“I missed academics,” said Felton. “I had absolutely fallen in love with it when I was there.”
Fast forward through specialized training in prosthodontics, faculty positions at UNC and a stint as dean in West Virginia to 2016 and the UM School of Dentistry. Felton became dean on January 19, and he's just as decisive today as he was at three. He has a vision for where the school is going, and he's taking the steps to achieve those goals. From the looks of it, his momentum is contagious with faculty and students alike.
“The first goal is to come up with a very cogent strategic plan for the school,” said Felton. “We've already started the process this past week with the chairs and senior administrators, and I've challenged them to think outside the box.
“Most people in strategic planning will tell you that you need to think about that BHAG-Big Hairy Audacious Goal. What do you want to be when you grow up? I think that's what we need to do.”
Felton has asked his faculty and staff to think of what they want to see the school doing differently in five to ten years.
Dr. Robert Scott Gatewood, chair of the Department of Endodontics, said that Felton's experience in leadership is evident in the way he “gathers information, considers possibilities and moves forward with a plan or solution.”
“Dr. Felton, in a short period, has worked very successfully to gain insight into the opportunities and challenges facing the School of Dentistry,” said Gatewood. “He has met with virtually every faculty member and has used the information gained to help structure solutions and promote opportunities.”
Dr. Jason Griggs, associate dean for research and professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Materials Science, said that Felton has given him the task of identifying strategies to increase research by the dental students.
The school's current student research program, the UPSTART Program, is led by Dr. Amol Janorkar, associate professor in biomedical materials science. The program is very successful with undergraduate students; however, fewer DMD students have chosen to participate in recent years.
“One strategy that we are looking at is possibly adding a required assignment for every dental student to design a research study,” said Griggs. “Those who choose to actually conduct their study would be matched with a faculty mentor and would be eligible for small intramural grants.”
Students and faculty are also excited about plans to expand the school's community service learning in the future.
“I would like to see the SOD take on a greater role in community service,” said Trisha Patel, a second-year dental student. “We already have service learning week, but I think we could expand it even further to reach more people in our community and our state.”
“Increasing rural clinic rotations for dental students would have several benefits, including making it easier for students to perform the required number of each type of procedure, showing them how a private practice operates and introducing them to potential future business partners,” said Griggs.
Gatewood said that the success of this program, one that will focus on rural sites and improving the oral health in underserved areas, will hinge on support from the state's currently practicing dentists.
“Dr. Felton has reached out to the state's dental community and has established relationships with practicing dentists, the leadership of the Mississippi Dental Association and the State Board of Dental Examiners,” said Gatewood. “These relationships are important in creating a base of support for the school and its programs.”
As for other future goals, Felton said that there are opportunities to begin training students on digital dentistry, surgically placing dental implants and the use of lasers in dentistry.
“Do we do a good job of what we are doing today? Yes,” said Felton. “If we are doing the same thing five years from now that we are doing today, our students are going to be five years behind what they need to be. Technology in dentistry is changing that fast. What do we need to do to keep up with it?”
Students are confident that Felton will keep the school abreast of new technologies.
“Dr. Felton is a very forward thinking person. He will lead the SOD into the future with an emphasis on keeping us up-to-date with the most modern practices in dentistry,” said Patel.
Whatever the changes, the students are confident that Felton will be there to lead by example, a sentiment voiced by more than one student.
“He (Felton) has so many duties and responsibilities as dean, but he still finds the time for students in the pre-clinic and clinic setting,” said Miles Backstrom, a second-year dental student. “Dr. Felton presents a lead-by-example attitude and is not afraid to get his hands dirty, whether that's helping a student with a denture case or mopping up the flooded basement floor after a big rain.”
“Dr. Felton has a very hands-on style. He guides you along the right path while allowing you the freedom think for yourself,” said Patel.
“The school of dentistry is in good hands with Dr. Felton,” said second-year dental student Delta Boyles. “He has already changed many things for the school in his first semester with us, and I am excited to see what else he plans to do to make our educational experiences even better!”