When I received the invitation to write a Centennial Guest Editorial for the American Journal of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics , after exactly 50 years as an orthodontist and educator, many different topics came to my mind. However, with the recent passing of Charles Burstone, a friend, colleague, and mentor, it became crystal clear: this was the perfect opportunity to express my thoughts about the state of orthodontic education and the role and importance of mentorship. As every orthodontic educator knows, a major challenge is attracting our best residents to pursue full-time careers in teaching or research. One major obstacle to this that has been mentioned repeatedly is the disparity in financial compensation to educators vs the earning potential in private practice. When I look back 5 decades to the time I started teaching, I vividly recall that the financial issue was before me, and I am sure my contemporaries in education faced the same dilemma. So the question is why did I choose to pursue full-time education, unlike others who chose private practice? When I reflect on my decision, the obvious reason for me to commit to an academic career path was the power and influence of excellent mentorship.
I had the great fortune of having lifelong mentorship from my brothers Ram Nanda, who retired after 50 years in education, and Surender Nanda, who dedicated 40 years of his life to education. Charles Burstone, whom I worked with for 43 years, guided my career until his retirement in 1992 and thereafter continued to act as my senior mentor. Before I came to Connecticut, Frans van der Linden and Allan G. Brodie also helped me steer toward the academic career. So, what did they all have in common to be such effective mentors? Let’s look at some of the primary characteristics.
All of my mentors instilled a love for orthodontics and showed genuine interest in the advancement of our specialty. They were always enthusiastic about each and every phase of orthodontics, and we all know that such enthusiasm can be contagious! They showed excitement while discussing clinical or research results, and they brought us in and made us join in their excitement.
It’s not possible to simply “create” educators in orthodontics. What we can do is create a nurturing environment where young faculty members feel respected, and where they can discuss their challenges, concerns, and feelings with their mentors. All of my mentors had a single mantra: do not compete with your young faculty; rather, create ladders to help them reach higher and higher goals. My mentors were always enthusiastic in sharing their expertise, clinical acumen, and research ideas. They all took a personal interest in my activities while I was a student and a young faculty member. This allowed me to express my opinions to them, both good and bad. I learned at that point that a good mentor must be a world-class listener and sounding board, regardless of how trivial a subject seems at the time.
All potential faculty prospects and young faculty need constant feedback. This feedback should be constructive and guide them toward better outcomes. A mentor must be humble and compassionate but should also challenge the mentee intellectually. Interestingly, looking back, none of my mentors was shy in giving me feedback. Even more, some gave me tough love, which I can now truly appreciate, better than my younger self.
My mentors believed in taking risks and leaps of faith with young faculty. They were not afraid to give me responsibilities. This charge helped develop in me a sense of ownership, such as independence in teaching a course, spearheading a research project, or writing a manuscript from scratch. We were not micromanaged, and this allowed us to experiment with new teaching methodologies and research ideas. We could achieve our own excellence and identify our own unique strengths.
I am proud to say that all my mentors were visionaries. They were the grandfathers of the studies related to growth and development of the craniofacial structures. As we know today, they developed new clinical techniques, and they introduced biomechanics in orthodontics on an entirely new level. They truly were inventors and innovators. They showed me that to attract young faculty one must create excitement in the areas of research and clinical innovations that will impact the specialty all over the world.
During my formative years, rewards from my mentors were hardly financial. But to me, the rewards I did receive were far more gratifying. What were these rewards? Some that quickly come to mind were publishing my first article, giving my first research presentation at an International Association for Dental Research meeting, giving my first lectures at American Association of Orthodontists and European Orthodontic Society annual sessions, and even receiving funding for my first research grant. All of these events did not just happen on their own, but they happened with enthusiastic help and pushes from my mentors.
I learned from my mentors to always seek the truth. This allowed me to pursue research with an open mind and a thirst for discovery. In this day and age, systematic reviews and meta-analyses show us that much information in the literature is not valid and that the so-called “facts” and “dogmas” for providing the best treatment for certain malocclusions might not be supported by sound scientific studies. This has opened up new vistas in orthodontics to seek information with better scientific methodologies, with well-designed prospective and experimental studies.
Now more than ever, we need highly accomplished and effective mentors who can motivate and mold young orthodontists into truth-seeking educators, innovative researchers, and excellent clinicians. Like my mentors, we must set the bar high to bring our specialty to a new level. We, as educators, should take a resounding lead to develop our young prospective faculty. We need to motivate them to continue to find the answers of the future. We need them to examine unsubstantiated claims by orthodontic manufacturers. We need them to develop new technologies that will help to shorten treatment time by conducting independent clinical trials. We need them to provide unbiased opinions on treatment methods based on scientific studies, to know what works and what does not.
To achieve all of this, we need excellent mentors now and enthusiastic young educators ready to soar.