An expert on Dental Materials at Inter-disciplinary Research Centre, COMSATS IIT, Lahore, shared his wisdom and experiences with the younger generations of Doctors
Q: What made you choose UK for your Postgraduation?
Ans: After my house job from PIMS, Islamabad, in 2000, I joined a private dental college, in Islamabad, as demonstrator in the department of Dental Materials. During that time, the Head of Department was either from Operative and/or Prosthetic Dentistry. It was something that we suffered even throughout our undergraduate studies. Unfortunately, there was no specialized teacher of Dental Materials in our dental institute. The subject became a rolling stone between operative and prosthetic dentistry, which is not right. So I thought that in Pakistan, we need specialist teachers in dental materials, so I should proceed with my career in this field. In 2002, I started my search in different universities of USA, UK and Canada. In USA, very few universities were offering Masters programs in dental materials, but they were not famous. In UK, quite a few good universities, including Queen Mary University of London, University of Newcastle, Liverpool University and Manchester University were offering Masters programs. So I applied in the Queen Mary University of London and University of Newcastle in 2003. I got admission in both universities, however, I opted for Queen Mary University of London because in 2003-04 its dental school was ranked no. 1 in the UK in the RAE (Times Higher Education) and still in 2013-14, it is ranked no. 2 in UK. Here, I must mention, that I got this inspiration from my father, who also did his PhD from Glasgow, UK in 1966, this enhanced my determination and I was familiar with the UK education system and heard about his educational experiences in the UK.
Q: What difference did you see in the teaching system in Pakistan and the UK?
Ans: There is no harm in accepting this bitter reality, that there is a remarkable difference in teaching systems prevalent in Pakistan and the UK. Both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Infact, there is no proper system in Pakistan. We admire British and US systems, but in reality, we don’t follow their footings. The main reason is that we don’t have dedicated teachers, instead we have part-time teachers with insufficient education. To be honest, we are providing a compromised education to our students and they are getting Bachelors, Masters or Fellowships, but without any core knowledge. In UK, you can’t teach in a dental institution, unless you have a PhD degree, either in clinical or basic science subjects. It’s a misconception that one can learn more due to higher patient influx, that’s not the case, because nobody teaches the ethics of dentistry. There is no evidence-based dentistry being practiced here, nor is there a problem-based approach to learning. This is what they emphasize in UK. Secondly, our government and private institutes do not want to spend money to get better facilities and advanced technologies for students. I am in a visiting faculty of Institute of Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, UK and I have been involved in teaching at undergraduate level and I would like to share this experience that they don’t compromise their educational standards. At postgraduate level, in UK, they emphasize more on critical analysis of literature search, research methodologies and they encourage students to ask questions and think beyond their goals. The other thing is to design study or project based on novel approaches, rather than repeating some old study. There is an easy access to journals and international standard specifications. Additionally, the institutes provide funding for the students’ research projects. The supervisors give them full attention and transfer knowledge to their students. In comparison, our postgraduate students, whether they are in MPhil, FCPS or MDS, they have to arrange everything for themselves. Consequently, by the end, they come up with compromised ideas in order to get their degree. Furthermore, the postgraduate students do not want to leave their evening private clinical practice, resultantly they can’t give full concentration to their studies. I think, in Pakistan, we have to change the teaching methodology and we should get rid of part time teachers and part-time students especially in case of postgraduate studies.
Q: Why did you choose PhD in Basic Dental Sciences?
Ans: When I was going for MSc., my plan was to get on master degree and come back to Pakistan, but when I finished my MSc. in 2005, I realized that MSc. had just give me a flavor of research and I didn’t learn much in this one year program, so if I want to learn more, I should go for a PhD program. Alhamdullilah, I had achieved Distinction in MSc. and was awarded as the “Best Student of Year”, so the university offered me a scholarship for PhD program. It really made my decision quick and easy, therefore within 15-20 days after my MSc. result, I got admission in PhD Dental Materials program from Queen Mary University of London. Alhamdullilah, I finished my PhD in 3 years and during this time, I learned techniques of synthesizing filler particles, polymer, composites, scaffolds for tissue engineering and luckily, I have used almost all advanced analytical equipments, including; Scanning Electron Microscopy, Transmission Electron Microscopy, Mechanical testing machines, thermal, physical, chemical and biological testing. Summing up, I went through numerous procedures related to Dental Materials Sciences and it made easier for me to design or synthesize any new dental material, which I believe that I could not do with a Masters degree. I was involved in teaching BDS, BSc., and MSc. Dental Materials students, so I had the experience of British teaching system. Moreover during my PhD program, I got an opportunity of Research Assistantship with the Swedish company – Doxa AB. It was a collaborative project between industry and academia, so I learned not only the advance techniques to make bone cements, but also the Quality Assurance, and Alhamdullilah, our product was approved by FDA. So, from this postgraduate degree, I learned the basic and advance research ethics and methodologies, got knowledge of publishing papers in international journals and courage to present my work at international conferences. I got the opportunity to interact with well-known researchers, professors and mentors and deeply realized the prevailing wisdom of a field. So this postgraduate degree helped me, so now I am doing collaborative projects with three UK-based universities, University of Hong Kong, University of Western Cape, South Africa and Institute of Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London offered me a post of Visiting Lecturer.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for professionals from Pakistan to get foreign education?
Ans: If anyone really wants to enjoy the taste of professional education, he or she must get degree from foreign countries like USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong or Singapore. The main reason is that the standard and ethics of their education system are much higher than Pakistan. Their professional approach and their attitude towards their work are much better than us. It can help to improve the clinical or basic sciences skills. Furthermore, one can get more facilities in terms of equipments, clinical and laboratory facilities and resource materials like journals and text books. Additionally, one interacts with other nationals, learns and observes their good and bad habits respectively. It broadens your mental approach and helps a lot in personality grooming.
Q: What would be the best time for a student to plan a postgraduate program and how should they plan the finances?
Ans: If students want to get admission in basic sciences, they should make a plan at undergraduate level (3rd/4th year) and teachers should guide them about requirements of application. To get admissions in good universities, students should improve their CVs by publishing papers and presentations at conferences. Usually, at undergraduate level, most of the students want to pursue their career in clinical subjects but for most of the students, it is not financially viable, then they have to change their focus. Therefore during undergraduate level, they should be knowledgeable. Though previously, in Pakistan, the funding sources were not promising, but now there are some funding agencies like Higher Education Commission Pakistan, TWAS, Islamic Development Bank and scholarships such as Commonwealth Scholarship, Full Bright Scholarship, Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Erasmus Mundus under Horizon 2020 are available. There are some research centres in USA and UK; they also provide funding to international students.
Q: You Postdoctorate after PhD. Why did you do this? Any suggestions for future candidates who are planning for PhD?
Ans: Its famous saying that learning is a continuous process and still I believe there is lot more to learn, that’s why I decided for postdoctoral program. Alhamdullilah, my institute, COMSATS IIT supported me and provided me funding for this. Again I opted for UK, but this time I went to the Kroto Research Institute, University of Sheffield. The project was based on the analysis of biomarkers of oral cancer cells by using Vibrational Spectroscopy. One of my research interests is using non-destructive spectroscopic techniques. I wanted to further enhance my skills by using one of the latest Raman Spectroscopy, which was available in University of Sheffield. I worked there in collaboration with School of Clinical Dentistry, University of Sheffield.
Getting admission in PhD program is easy, but to get out successfully, in time, is difficult and it needs real efforts. So before deciding to pursue a PhD, make sure that you love your field of study and will enjoy immersing yourself in it for several years. Before entering in this program, a candidate should know his/her strengths and limitations. If they have courage to overcome their limitations, then and only then they should enter. A few PhD candidates do not meet requirements of their graduate programs and are asked to leave. Others choose to leave because they are burnt out, or their interests have changed. Some students who don’t complete the PhD leave with a master’s degree; others leave with no degree at all. So, a candidate should be mentally strong and must know all pros and cons of their life before deciding this program.
Q: You are working in research centre based in non-medical/dental institute, What do you say about your experience to work in this environment?
Ans: I feel lucky enough, that I got a chance to work at Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials, COMSATS IIT, Lahore. This research centre is first of its kind working in the area of Biomaterials. It was started in November 2008 and I joined this centre in 2010 and initiated the Dental Materials Research from this platform. It was easy for me to join any dental college, but I felt that would be a wastage of my degree and I should engage myself in the core research-cum-teaching rather than teaching only. Alhamdullilah, over the last 4 years, I have been involved in research and achieved grants from British Council, Higher Education Commission, Pakistan Science Foundation. I published papers in peer-reviewed journals with total impact factor of 40+ and H-index 6. I am working in interdisciplinary centre where there are 19 PhD scholars with background of Material Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Engineering and they did their PhD and post-doctorates from UK, USA, Germany, France, Austria, Sweden, Japan, China, Netherlands, Malaysia, and Brazil. So, it’s a great experience to work with this energetic and high profile team. I have learned a lot about research and team work ethics. Again, I must say that there is much knowledge and education beyond dental institutes and I think, I can serve better to dentistry while working in this non-dental institute.
Q: You brought the International Association for Dental Research (IADR) to Pakistan? Why and When?
Ans: Well, I have been a member of IADR since 2005 and when I was in UK, I observed that our contemporaries like India, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc have Sections and Divisions with IADR and at international level, they have been considered, whereas, we as Pakistani dentists have no international representations. So, when I came back to Pakistan in 2010, I immediately contacted IADR and started the procedure to establish their Chapter in Pakistan. Finally, we got permission in 2011. Since then, we have organized three annual conferences and multiple seminars and workshops. The basic idea is to bring Pakistani dentistry at international forum; one of the main features is to provide chance to our dentists to apply for Fellowships, Awards and Grants. The other advantage is that as Section we can nominate one person (faculty, postgraduate or undergraduate student) to present their research, clinical or basic, at international forum and IADR will bear all their expenses. If we will become Division, then we can nominate 2 persons. The members can also get the access of Journal of Dental Research, which is the highest impact factor journal in dentistry. So there are multiple advantages of this association, that’s why we initiated this in Pakistan and now Alhamdullilah, its growing and faculty members and students are getting its memberships and they have got stimulation to submit their articles for international journals which is a positive approach.
Q: What would be your advice to the youngsters?
Ans: As with most great opportunities the rewards go to those who are prepared to grab them. My advice to our youngster is that to believe in them and always think positively. They should know their priorities and goals. They should also realize how can they serve Pakistan and play their positive role to improve the standard of dentistry in Pakistan. Secondly, I must advise that do not run after money, it will eventually come to you with your successes will accelerate and compound to the point, where you achieve your complete professional and personal objectives in life. The other is do not take too long to decide what you want to do. Whilst you are deciding, look into what the different specialties require for entrance and how you can achieve that. Does that fit in with your circumstances and where you want to end up in the future? It’s a good idea to have a few publications under your belt as well as having a link with colleagues and fellows based internationally.