Pushing the Boundaries

May 20, 2019
Erica Shapiro Frenkel

Erica Shapiro Frenkel’s path through dental school took a slight detour when she decided at the end of her second year of dental school to pursue a PhD. Frenkel took a break from her studies at HSDM to study oral microbiology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Ribbeck Lab as part of the PhD in Biological Sciences in Dental Medicine Program.

“I knew when I applied to dental school that I wanted to pursue a combined DMD/PhD program, so the decision to step away from the DMD program after my second year was obvious,” she said. “I had a great experience doing research during college and was sure that I wanted to make research part of my long-term career path. Having a DMD and PhD will give me a broad range of career opportunities that combine clinical work, research and teaching both in academia and industry.”

During Frenkel’s absence, HSDM implemented a newly revised curriculum. The Pathways curriculum uses an interdisciplinary format, fostering independent learning, critical thiErica Shapiro Frenkelnking, and lifelong learning skills important to healthcare professionals. Notably, it eliminates lectures and utilizes flipped classrooms and team-based group activities. When Frenkel returned to HSDM to complete her DMD, the School had undergone a distinct shift in its approach to educating learners.

“The transition back to dental school after my PhD was challenging,” she said. “I was the only new student to join the class of 2019 and that class was the first to go through HSDM in the new curriculum. I found that the curriculum change wasn’t as big of an issue as I had thought; the main challenge was joining a new class… luckily I sat next to some wonderful classmates in class who helped me through that time.” 

As can be expected, Frenkel experienced a bit of a learning curve during her transition back to HSDM. “There were definitely times when material was covered in the new curriculum that I never learned, but the faculty were very understanding of my situation and worked with me to learn the new material.”
Erica Shapiro Frenkel
Frenkel acknowledges that her decision to pursue a DMD and PhD almost simultaneously is rare, and is grateful to have had the support of the HSDM community. “The freedom afforded by HSDM and the DMD/PhD program is a unique aspect of my HSDM experience that has impacted me the most. This freedom combined with the available resources has allowed me to expand my interests and push the boundaries of what I thought was possible – both for my career and personal growth.”

Now, two years later, Frenkel will proudly stand alongside her classmates at Class Day knowing that while her journey was not typical, it was certainly the right one for her. “The great diversity of exceptional students, dentists, researchers, and physicians who work and study at HSDM have had a profound impact on my career path,” she said. “Being surrounded by these brilliant individuals gave me more motivation and support to pursue a somewhat unconventional career path.”

Frenkel hopes to integrate her two degrees and create her own unique career path. “The strong link that HSDM fosters between the medical and dental fields has influenced my research interests and has shaped how I view my role as an oral health care provider that I am sure will carry into my future career.” Having tackled two degrees programs already, Frenkel will go on to pursue a residency in Orthodontics at the University of Washington after she graduates.

Erica's story is part of a series of profiles about the graduating Class of 2019. Stay tuned for upcoming features! 

See also: Community, Students