Whilst studying as a mature student Raha Sepehrara decided not to travel abroad for her elective. However staying in the UK wasn’t nearly as much of a chore as she expected.
Most dental schools set aside a period for independent study which can range from undertaking an evidence based critique of the literature to a period of self-directed learning which is termed an elective. When I was studying in Birmingham the elective period ran in the summer between the fourth and fifth year. A satisfactory grade was a requirement to successfully complete the BDS course.
The aim of this project is for students to experience self-directed learning so that they can gain a variety of invaluable skills. The main skills are planning a project, carrying it out and writing a report on it. Furthermore the elective project should also enable the student to access different literature resources, assess their reliability and produce a critical literature review in the final written report. During this period of independent study you should also be able to develop or improve your IT skills, develop or improve your teamwork and interpersonal skills, learn to analyse and interpret data and manage the financial aspects of the project.
Whilst I was a student at Birmingham, the topic for the project did not have to be dentally related. The elective project could be dentally or medically related, science related or something completely non-dental. Many students also decided to use this opportunity to travel and visit different countries.
I started thinking about my elective in the summer of my third year. After talking to students in the year above and reading Launchpad, I decided to stay at home in Birmingham. Being a mature student, I felt I had too many responsibilities and did not feel comfortable with the idea of going abroad for such a long time. I also felt that if I did my project in the earlier part of the summer, I could have a longer, work-free holiday in August.
Another reason that influenced my decision to stay at home was my wish to carry out a research-based project for my elective. I had gained some experience in research during my previous degree in microbiology and wished to retain the skills I had learnt, so I contacted Dr Anthony Roberts, a clinical lecturer in periodontology at the school who also had research interests in microbiology. I carried out a series of short experiments during the summer of my third year to get a taster of doing research in microbiology. As I thoroughly enjoyed the experience that summer, I was positive I wanted to carry out a research-based elective project. The project was finalised during the autumn of my fourth year, when I started collecting all the literature necessary as background for my project. I was going to culture Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium involved in endodontic pathology. The project was titled: ‘The effect of adrenaline found naturally and within local anaesthetic solutions on bacteria associated with endodontic pathology’
After sitting my medical sciences exams and passing them in June 2006, I went to Italy for a week to recharge my batteries. I started my elective project in July 2006 and spent four weeks growing the bacteria and assessing their growth. During that time, I kept in touch with some of my colleagues who were abroad for their electives and I still did not feel that I was missing out on anything. During the summer, the weather was amazing in the UK and I was able to sunbathe every day before going to the lab! I was also lucky because I had some very good friends who I would meet up with every day. I was therefore still working hard but also playing hard, like all the other students who had gone abroad.
I started analysing and interpreting the data at the end of the summer holidays. I was really glad to see that my project had produced really interesting results. The experiments that I carried out demonstrated that adrenaline enhanced growth of the endodontic pathogen E.faecalis. These are really important results as they indicate that changes in the levels of adrenaline-containing local anaesthetics could affect the success or failure of endodontic treatment. Once my data was all put together, I finally started the write up of my project report. I finally submitted my report a couple of months afterwards. Soon after that I found out that my hard work had paid off as I was awarded with a grade A for my elective.
I gained invaluable skills from this project, including those of planning and carrying out a project and writing up a report. I greatly improved my IT skills, especially using Excel, and I also strengthened my ability to do literature reviews. Furthermore, I learnt many new techniques in the lab. The experience also reinforced how important teamwork is, that research is very hard work and that even negative results are results. Negative results occur for a reason and help the researcher to think more critically. Most of all, I realised how important research is in dentistry.
In conclusion, much can be learnt during the elective project. Students can find inspiration for their future career from these experiences, for example a positive experience in research may influence a student to pursue a career in academia. These projects also give students the opportunity to gain an insight into different cultures and different working environments. Let’s just hope that no more dental schools will scrap the elective programmes from their undergraduate curriculum.
Raha Sepehrara is a Birmingham dental school graduate.
Acknowledgements: I am extremely grateful to Professor Walmsley for his help and advice during the write up of this article. I am also very thankful to Dr Roberts for his guidance and invaluable help throughout my elective. This project was subsidised by the British Endodontic Society.