#UMMCGrad19: From cafeteria worker to dentist, Alper Coban stands out for work ethic and research experience
Published on Thursday, May 23, 2019
By: Kate Royals
Alper Coban’s career in the United States began in Perry Cafeteria at Mississippi State University in 2001.
Nearly 20 years later, Coban will graduate from the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry and head to Edinburg, Texas to practice general dentistry with a friend and colleague who was instrumental in his path to dentistry.
Coban, who grew up in Turkey, is the only member of his family to move to the US. The idea has been on his mind since he was a child.
“Growing up, I would watch Western movies and think, ‘Oh, I want to be there one day,’” he laughed.
In addition to the allure of John Wayne, Coban was also drawn to the well-respected research and availability of funding.
His father Abdurrahman, a police chief in Turkey, constantly encouraged him to get as much education as possible. It was something he wasn’t able to achieve for himself but prioritized for his son.
So, when a friend of Coban’s from Turkey who was at MSU getting his Ph.D. encouraged him to come to Starkville, Coban applied for a visa, planning to work and get his master’s degree.
After making the big move in 2001, he started English classes at Mississippi State, where he met Dr. Vladislav Loshkarev, a dentist who had recently moved from Russia. Both quickly realized there was the English they were being taught in the classroom, and then there was the Southern dialect they heard around campus.
Mississippi colloquialisms such as “fixin’ to” were throwing them both for a loop.
Coban decided to apply for a job that would require a lot of interaction and conversation with different people: as a food server in the cafeteria. He worked there for a year and a half, and even helped Loshkarev get hired there as well, a fact they laugh about now as Coban prepares to practice with Loshkarev in his dental clinic in Texas.
“He always tells me, ‘I never forget you got me hired in a job,’” Coban said.
He continued talking to as many people as he could each day, and his English improved “tremendously,” he said. He enjoyed talking in the early morning hours to the athletes who filtered in for breakfast before practices and workouts, and the hundreds of students, faculty and staff who came through for lunch each day in between classes.
Dr. William Boteler, assistant professor of care planning and restorative sciences in the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry, said when he heard this story from Coban, he was impressed.
“He not only learned our language but sought out to learn our dialect and learn it well. That, to me, speaks volumes,” Boteler, who is currently Coban’s advisor, said.
After more than a year working in the cafeteria, Coban was accepted and completed his master’s degree in environmental toxicology at Mississippi State, studying and researching the effects of environmental toxins such as pesticides. He began work on his doctorate in 2008, gaining more than 15,000 research hours over the next seven years, intending to stay in academic research after defending his dissertation.
However, during the Great Recession in the late 2000s, Coban noticed many of his friends looking for jobs in research were having trouble finding them. Thinking he needed to look into a more stable career, he visited his friend Loshkarev, who had at that point moved to Texas to practice at a clinic.
“I visited him several times (before I started dental school) and shadowed him, watching how he interacted with people and helped people, and I really enjoyed it,” said Coban, at that point a husband and father of two boys.
Aside from dentistry offering more stability, Coban had always loved working with his hands.
“I’ve always been a detail-oriented person, and I love fixing stuff, doing things like working on cars. I don’t take my car to the mechanic, even for really advanced problems,” he said.
Loshkarev encouraged him to apply to dental school, and Coban’s wife, Seval Ozkan, who is also from Turkey and was working at MSU at the time, agreed.
Ozkan, now a researcher at the UMMC Cancer Center and Research Institute, formerly the UMMC Cancer Institute, still beams with pride when she talks about how so many people warned her and her husband how difficult it is to get accepted to dental school on the first try. Coban ordered a book off Amazon to prepare for the Dental Admission Test, thinking he better get started immediately if it would take a while to be accepted to school.
“I just thought, let’s see what happens,” he said.
He applied to UMMC and was accepted on the first try, though he first would have to take 22 hours of undergraduate credits that did not transfer from his university in Turkey. He also spent his first year in dental school while his wife and sons, Furkan and Kayra, remained in Starkville.
“(Dental school) wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had the support of my wife. She was going through tough times,” particularly that first year, he said.
Since beginning school, Coban has stood out to his professors. Aside from being the oldest student in his class – a fact his classmates often joke with him about in the clinic – his work ethic, humor and unique background are qualities his professors and colleagues admire.
“We have never, in my knowledge, had anyone with that (research) background, and in addition, excellent undergraduate grades,” said Dr. John Smith, associate professor and assistant dean for admissions and student affairs in the School of Dentistry.
“Sometimes students are tempted to take shortcuts and take the easy way, and often the ethical thing is not the easy thing. I’ve seen him faced with that decision, and he ended up on the ethical path,” said Boteler.
In addition, his work ethic is “exceptional.”
“He’s got the patient’s best interest at heart, and if that means him dotting all his I’s and crossing all his T’s then he’s going to do that if that’s what’s best for the patient.”
Coban’s family in Turkey will visit him in his new role as a practicing dentist this summer. And while he didn’t become one of the cowboys he looked up to in American movies, his father is certain to be very proud.