A study in wax: SOD first-years get early lessonsPublished on Monday, August 29, 2022By: Ruth CumminsWhen you’re a first-year student in the School of Dentistry, you get to play with warmed-up wax and using a slightly hooked dental tool, shape it into a caterpillar, a dragon, a bicycle or even a container of McDonald’s French fries.Catch is, it’s got to be small enough to fit on a popsicle stick and stay there. And, best case scenario, it’s got to be identifiable, especially to the fourth years who award prizes for the best works of art produced in Dental Morphology and Occlusion.“They’re getting used to how wax feels, and how much heat it takes to manipulate and melt it,” said Michelle Andrews, education coordinator for pre-clinical studies at the School of Dentistry on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.“A fun way to do this is to make something small in a two-hour period.”Dental wax has many uses. It can protect gums from the metal edges of braces. It’s used to make tooth impressions, casting of teeth duplicates and tooth models – for example, applying wax onto a crown preparation in order to create a tooth. It can provide relief to soft tissues of the mouth that can become irritated from dental appliances.Dr. Karen Carney, a clinical professor in the School of Dentistry, offers encouragement to first-year student Dutton Day of Starkville during a waxing exercise.All first-year students take their assigned seats in a SOD laboratory early in their first semester to perform waxing. It teaches them just how much dexterity and focus it takes to be a dentist.“This is Day One in learning hand skills, demonstrating creativity and utilization of materials, and how to use their electric waxers – and to have fun,” said Dr. Karen Carney, clinical professor in the Department of Care Planning and Restorative Sciences.“They will master this. This is Day One, and like most dental skills, everything builds. It’s cumulative.”As he and his classmates listened to tunes including the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” Alex Rial chose different colors of wax to melt and mold.First-year School of Dentistry student Alex Rial fashions a knight and a sea monster from heated wax using inspiration from the fantasy drama Game of Thrones.“I’m making a knight and a sea monster,” the Tupelo resident said. “The knight will be running to protect the village. I’m hoping there will be a sea monster at the end.”His knight, inspired by the series Game of Thrones, is fingernail tall.“I’ll work on his head and make a red helmet. I’ll put a sword in his hand. That’s the plan. No promises.”PhillipsWhen he attended the SOD, students created the wax figures on their thumbnails, said Dr. Scott Phillips, assistant dean for patients and associate professor in Integrated Patient Care.After a student didn’t want to mess up her manicure with wax, he said, the surface was changed to a small wooden disc, then to the current popsicle stick. The school purchased 40 electric waxers as the pandemic wore on, causing students working virtually to lose access to heating wax with a flame in the lab, he said.“This exercise was fun and creative to get them used to manipulating the wax and to understand how it melts and how it solidifies,” Phillips said.There are so many lessons and skills that spring from waxing.“When they first start, they don’t have a good concept of how the shape of a tooth affects its function,” Carney said. “They’ll get a broken tooth, and they can practice replacing the missing piece with wax.”They’re learning about the anatomy of teeth and how to distinguish one from another, Phillips said. They’re finding out how a dental lab works, and how someone in the lab “waxes up” a replica of an impression made of a tooth. “Then you take what you’ve done in wax, and you re-create it in metal or ceramic,” he said.From left, first-year School of Dentistry students Dalton Dempsey of Starkville, Olivia Gordon, and Bailey McPhail compete for bragging rights on who can make the best tiny work of art from melted wax.Before becoming a dental student, Bailey McPhail of Sumrall had a summer job helping out at an oral-maxillofacial surgeon’s practice and went on a mission trip. “The people there kept asking, ‘Is there a dentist?’ and we didn’t have one on the mission team,” she remembered. And she thought back on the joy that working in the oral surgeon’s office gave her.“I knew I’d entered the right field,” she said.She created a wax turtle on a sand beach. “Maybe the natural color of the popsicle stick can be the sand,” McPhail said.Olivia Gordon of Louisville gently pushed small balls of wax together to make a caterpillar. “I just broke her antenna, but it’s fixable because it’s wax,” she said. “It’s tricky. It’s not as easy as you’d imagine. My fine motor skills are working today.”First-year School of Dentistry students Day and Tianna Nguyen of Long Beach compare notes on the unique creations they're making from melted wax as part of a laboratory exercise.Ma’Rion Fuller of Bogue Chitto created two football players and a football on her popsicle stick. “My little brother has a football game today, and I won’t be able to go,” she explained.So, she used his school colors of blue and gold in her second venture at waxing. The first was an exercise she did as a student in the Mississippi Rural Dentists Scholarship Program.“I learned then that if you let the wax melt a little and then catch it in the corner of your (waxing) instrument, you can work it better,” she said.Dentists, Carney said, are obsessive about their work. It shows when students “can make a bug a half-inch long. We work in tiny millimeters. We work on a real microscale.“Form follows function. That’s an art,” she said. “But you don’t have to be a Jackson Pollock to be a good dentist. You don’t have to be a great inventive artist. You can learn hand skills.”That day in the lab, McPhail’s life experiences came full circle with the task at hand.“Today’s the first day I’ve felt like a dentist,” she said.