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NYU's Charles Bertolami is ADA 2010 Distinguished Service Award recipient

NYU's Charles Bertolami is ADA 2010 Distinguished Service Award recipient
Education update: Dr. Bertolami addresses the ADA Board of Trustees Aug. 18, 2008.

For many in the profession, the name Charles N. Bertolami has become synonymous with the issue of ethics.

Dentistry has seen a renewed focus on ethics in education and the profession in recent years following well-reported incidents of cheating at several of the nation’s dental schools. Dr. Bertolami, the dean of the New York University College of Dentistry, has earned praise from his colleagues for teachings that have spurred thoughtful discussions about ethics and challenged educators to help students become more introspective and act on their desire to do what is right.

Dr. Bertolami is the recipient of the ADA's 2010 Distinguished Service Award for his years of service and dedication to the profession, the highest honor conferred by the Board of Trustees. He will receive the award at the first meeting of the House of Delegates in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 9.

"We are fortunate that Dr. Bertolami is one of our own," said ADA President Ron Tankersley.

"Throughout his career, he has been an exemplary role model for his students and colleagues," said Dr. Tankersley. "Being multidimensional, he has positively impacted those in research, education and private practice. But, it's his passion for assessing and promoting professional ethics that truly distinguishes Dr. Bertolami during a time when ethical misconduct is a significant concern. The ADA recognizes the need for more dentists knowledgeable in the subject of dental ethics."

The ADA sought Dr. Bertolami in 2007 as a featured speaker for the Association's Symposium on Integrity and Ethics in Dental Education. Then dean of the University of California at San Francisco School of Dentistry, Dr. Bertolami had written a widely circulated article in the Journal of Dental Education, "Why Our Ethics Curricula Don't Work."

The ideas put forth in the paper "had been ruminating" for a while, he said. "I ultimately felt that I needed to write it when I saw dental students getting into trouble. Often, it related to students misconstruing what their own real interests were."

As he saw it, the problem was not that students didn’t know right from wrong. "They did what they knew was wrong because they thought there was a short-term need to do so," he said.

The challenge for educators is to present intellectual content in a way that "inspires, captivates, excites and role models students to do the right thing," said Dr. Bertolami, "not only because it's in their best interest to do so, but because it's so much more fulfilling.

"Students are going to have successful careers, make money, have wonderful families and do well in school," he continued. "In most cases, they will fulfill all those aspirations with startling ease. They don't really have to do the kinds of things that bring them a small short-term advantage and lose everything in the long run."

Put into practice at New York University, these ideas have led to the creation of an honor court called the Student Peer Review Board and mission trips abroad that have brought down the "us-versus-them" structure of education.

"In many ways, adult learners can regress if the environment they are placed in comes to resemble junior high school rather than graduate education," he said. "They will regress if they are not trusted, if they are not respected and if there is no authentic acceptance of responsibility. Students often live up to—or down to—our expectations of them."

A committee of dental students at every grade level comprises the board that reviews all disciplinary actions, including dismissal from school. "The significance of this is that without such peer involvement and responsibility, students can admire people who get away with things, and that has no place in professional education."

Every year more than 100 NYU students pay their own way to travel to countries like Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic to work at clinics under the supervision of dental and nursing faculty who go along with them, which Dr. Bertolami says encourages them to see patients in a different way.

"The student is not receiving credit or using the patient to complete a requirement," he said. "For the first time, many of them are seeing the impact of the skills they're acquiring and how they affect other people."

Students have a natural philanthropic and altruistic outlook, he added.

"These are people with the talent to do anything they want, such as go to Wall Street or open their own businesses, but they want to help other people. This is what we, as educators, have to capitalize on."

Dr. Bertolami drew on positive role models from his own childhood in Lorain, Ohio, and knew at age 11 he would become a dentist.

"My parents viewed dentists and physicians as extraordinary people and had tremendous respect for them. The high regard they had for my grandparents' dentist made an impression on me, and I never even met the man. All through high school, college and research, any path I chose still had to conform with a fundamental interest in dentistry that goes back to my earliest professional identity."

The launching pad for his career in research was a National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research-sponsored summer program at the University of Colorado in Boulder that he applied for while in his first year at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry.

"Personally, professionally, socially and academically, it was one of the best experiences of my life," he said.

"I worked in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. A research scientist there asked about my interests. I said I loved research but wanted to be a dentist. He said, 'Why don't you do both?'"

Dr. Bertolami calls the experience "transformative": it made him a prime candidate to represent OSU the following year at a conference at Harvard, where he met the chair of oral surgery who inspired him to pursue a combined oral surgery and research program at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he met a pharmacist who later became his wife.

The majority of his graduate research focused on a connective tissue component, glycosaminoglycan, and more specifically, hyaluronic acid. "At the time, my interest was in how tissue heals. A lot of attention in those days was on collagen but very little on noncollagen components of tissue repair. These studies led to my interest in wound healing and facial burn injury."

After graduating from the Lorain County Community College with an associate degree (1969), OSU College of Dentistry (1974), completing his residency in oral surgery at Harvard and MGH (1979), and teaching posts at the University of Connecticut (1980-83) and Harvard (1983-89), Dr. Bertolami became chair of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of California at Los Angeles (1989).

In 1994, his colleague and mentor, Joseph Martin, M.D., then UCSF chancellor, encouraged him to apply for the deanship at UCSF School of Dentistry—a post Dr. Bertolami would hold for what he called "12 wonderful years.

"Dentistry is extremely broad," he said, explaining what it has meant to him to be a dean, a teacher and a researcher. "It's all a temporary digression from what I set out to do, which was to be a general dentist in Lorain, Ohio. Too many good opportunities came along." Including the deanship of the nation's largest dental school, NYU, which he accepted in 2007.

On being a dean, he said: "I love it. You are treated very nicely, students look up to you, and what happens is you find yourself trying to live up to the expectations your own students have of you."

The Distinguished Service Award from the ADA is a unique honor, he said, because it's from the organization that speaks for the entire dental profession.

"I was tremendously surprised and honored to be considered for this recognition," said Dr. Bertolami. "It really is a wonderful way to demonstrate to our students that if you do the best you can, good things will happen to you."