First research assistant, first summer research student, first cavity
Published: July 29, 2021 by Kyle Rogers
For Associate Professor Cameron B. Jeter, PhD, a trip to UTHealth Pediatric Dentistry’s Postgraduate Clinic in late May brought about a full-circle moment as two former students assessed her child’s needs.
Jeter took her son, Harrison, who was seven years old at the time, to see Hillary D. Strassner, DDS ’20, at Houston Medical Center Plaza after discovering what looked like a hole in his tooth — his first cavity. Little did she know, Strassner had recruited another familiar face in Sarah N. Arafat, DDS ’17, to assist with the appointment. Each is in their second year of pediatric residency.
“It was a surprise to walk in and see both of them garbed up to welcome and care for my son,” Jeter said. “I knew both were caring for me, their former mentor, as much as for Harrison.”
It was also at that moment Jeter realized Strassner and Arafat had parallel schooling experience at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry. Each attended her neuroscience class, worked in her research lab, received the American Association for Dental, Oral, and Craniofacial Research’s Jonathan Ship Award, and were student officers of their respective classes (Strassner, president; Arafat, vice president).
“Seeing them both in clinic was a reassurance I’d been a good mentor,” Jeter said. “I knew there were things I helped teach them — like their basic science knowledge and communication with patients as they did clinical research with geriatric patients in my lab — but in another respect, I loved that I was now dependent upon them. It was their clinical expertise that was needed to treat my son.”
Arafat, who in 2014 was Jeter’s first summer research student, echoed the notion from her perspective, jumping at the chance when Strasser asked if she wanted to assist.
“Moments like this don’t come along often,” Arafat said. “As students, we’re used to going to our faculty for help and advice, but in this instance, we were the experts. It was surreal and really refreshing to be on the other side of that relationship.”
In addition to the cavity, Jeter expressed worry for her son over what she thought was an ulcer, the main reason for the emergency appointment ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Much to her relief, that concern was quickly alleviated, as Strassner identified the cause as merely a root remnant from a baby tooth stuck in his gums, which dislodged on its own a few weeks later.
“It made me laugh that, as a mom, I immediately jumped to a much worse scenario than it actually was,” Jeter said. “However, I trusted Hillary and what she was telling me. I probably trusted her more than I would the average resident, because of how long I’ve known her. I’ve seen firsthand her character and hard-working nature.”
Jeter first met Strassner when she was still a dental student hopeful, hiring her for the 2015-16 academic year as her first research assistant.
“Dr. Jeter was a mentor to me before I was even accepted to dental school and has always been there for me, so to be able to treat her child was such an honor,” Strassner said. “I think it also goes to show that when you mentor someone, like she mentored me, you raise them up into the person you want them to become. She did that for me and trusted me, because she’s seen me throughout my entire dental journey.”
For Jeter, the most rewarding part of it all was watching the interaction of her son with her former researchers.
“The pediatric clinic has kid-like names for their instruments,” Jeter said. “As they draped my son in his protective, X-ray apron, they referred to it as a cape and asked, ‘What superhero do you want to be?’ to make the experience less stressful for him.”
Strassner credits Jeter for learning how to handle these interactions.
“The most important thing I think in pediatric dentistry is behavior management and being able to have that bedside manner, not only with the child, but also the parent,” Strassner said. “Dr. Jeter showed me how to introduce and present myself. Why I’m the dentist I am today is because of her.”
Harrison and his five-year old sister, Claire, have since been back to the pediatric clinic. Each has reported healthy smiles.