The art of putting a smile on faces

SheanHan_FoD_221x226 mugshot 

Dr Soh Shean Han
Lecturer, Discipline of Orthodontics and
Paediatric Dentistry, Faculty of Dentistry,
National University of Singapore
Registrar, Orthodontics, National University
Centre for Oral Health, Singapore

Alumna, NUS Dentistry

It was in her teenage years that Dr Soh Shean Han’s interest in dentistry as a potential career was first piqued.

As such, when the opportunity came about to join a Job Shadowing Programme by NUS Dentistry when she was in junior college, she leapt at it.

She recalls the experience: “The students we shadowed were helpful and happy to provide advice, and the atmosphere was very positive. There was a lot of laughter as we went around the school.”

“But what stood out to me most was being able to see a dentist at work. That’s when I realised that as a dentist, you really use your hands a lot. It’s as much of a science as it is an art. I loved how that added a different dimension to the job.”

The one-day programme left a lasting impression, and not long after, Shean Han found herself in the shoes of the students whom she had shadowed, as an undergraduate at NUS’ Faculty of Dentistry.

Her time at school was a flurry of research projects, school activities and fulfilling days at the lab — all of which the go-getter happily embraced. She also took on many leadership roles, including becoming the Vice-President of the NUS Dental Society.

In that capacity, she represented her faculty in the NUS Students' Union (NUSSU) Council, and even regionally in the Asia-Pacific Dental Student Association (APDSA).

“While the training at school was no doubt rigorous, I was glad that I found time to partake in various leadership positions. It was an eye-opening experience that allowed me to hone my leadership skills, and network with individuals within and beyond the dental profession. Till today, I still hold very fond memories of my interaction with dental students from international universities, especially through the exchange programme between our faculty and the University of Malaya.”

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In 2012, Shean Han (back row, second from the left) represented NUS at the Asia-Pacific Dental Student Association Congress in Indonesia.

The spirited young woman also found time to do some good for the community, by kick-starting oral health community outreach programmes at Pelangi Village and Jamiyah Home for the Aged, in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

“From my recollection, it was the first on-site community outreach programme by students, whereby residents who were elderly or destitute could not only get their oral health screened, but also receive oral health education and get their extractions done, if it was needed.”

“It definitely opened my eyes to the lack of dental care access and oral health awareness among the underprivileged in Singapore. It was however only a small step, and there is so much more that needs to be done. I believe it was that experience that ignited my interest in public health, and probably explains my foray into epidemiological work on oral health,” she reflects thoughtfully.

Today, Shean Han is a co-investigator of the National Adult Oral Health Survey, funded by the Ministry of Health to collect information on the population’s oral health-related knowledge and practices, as well as oral disease prevalence and treatment needs.

Her early exposure to research through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme at NUS was something she is grateful for. The dental research project that she embarked on with her group mates clinched various awards, at the University level and regionally.

“We were very fortunate to receive guidance from mentors who had a lot of knowledge and expertise in the research topic. Working on a lab-based research project was a refreshing change from my day-to-day clinical training, and it also gave me a different perspective on what research could entail. I was elated when we came in first in the APDSA Scientific Research Competition. It gave us confidence to know that even as students, our projects were capable of competing on the international stage, and we were able to make a name for our Faculty.”

After graduating from NUS in 2012, Shean Han went on to pursue her Masters overseas, at the University of Washington. The idea of leaving a positive impact on patients’ lives through improving their smiles partly motivated her decision to specialise in orthodontics, which concerns the treatment of irregularities in the jaw and teeth.

Shean Han explains: “The right orthodontic treatment can improve a patient’s oral function and self-confidence, which can help with their physical and social well-being.”

“It’s a misconception that braces are only for vanity reasons, or only for younger people. I’ve had patients come in for braces in their 60s, either for aesthetics, or because we had to put the remaining teeth in the right place before they could have their missing teeth replaced. Orthodontic treatment can definitely play a role in a patient’s multidisciplinary treatment plan, both within and beyond dentistry.”

“I realised being a dentist is not only about having the best brains or hands. It’s equally important to be empathetic towards our patients and their needs,” she says. “It’s important to recognise that in real life, patients have constraints such as financial limitations, or their treatment preferences. While there is always an ideal treatment plan, it’s also imperative to find a treatment option that can work around these constraints and still help the patient.”

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In her first year after graduating from NUS, Shean Han (standing, second from left) worked alongside some of her classmates at Toa Payoh Polyclinic (Dental).

Besides being a clinician at NUH, she also teaches at the Faculty of Dentistry, drawn by what she calls the “amplification effect” that a mentor has. 

“Clinician educators don’t just help the patients directly under their care, but are also able to nurture students, and indirectly, touch the lives of patients who eventually come under their students’ care. I find that really meaningful.”

After all, she had experienced for herself how an aspiring dentist at NUS is given the resources they need to succeed.

“I came under the tutelage of many faculty members, and took away something positive from each one of them, whether it was their strong clinical expertise, their passion, sense of positivity or compassion, among others.”

She also fondly recalls the dental laboratory where she and her peers often spent many hours after school poring over their notes, honing their craft, and labouring for the next day’s clinics.

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As a student, Shean Han made many fond memories of honing her craft at the lab with her peers.

“From complaining about what went wrong or right, asking each other for advice, to helping each other along, the lab was a very collaborative space. It’s where, as a class of just 44 students, we forged very strong friendships and made lots of great memories.”

To aspiring dental students, Shean Han offers these words of advice: “The learning journey to becoming a dentist is definitely not an easy one, and it is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a lot of perseverance and resilience, and teamwork within the class.”

“Given the long hours dental students spend in tutorials or clinics, and in the dental laboratory, you may not be able to lead the most active social life. But the support that you get from your peers and mentors who go through thick and thin with you will make all the difference. Family support and understanding are equally important too.”