Child sinks her teeth into dentistry
By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector
Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Forget princess — Edison Witter-Merithew, 6, wants to be a scientist.
Those were the words on the shirt the 6-year-old wore on Tuesday for her special tour of the School of Dental Medicine at East Carolina University. And if the words on her shirt were not convincing enough, Edison’s school science project was evidence that she meant it.
“I think Edison first expressed interest in dentistry when she was four,” her mother, Mahalia Breen, said. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s interesting.’ Then we did science experiments for YouTube videos when she was five, and when it was time for her science fair experiment, she wanted to learn the difference between human eggs and bird eggs. That was more complicated than we could manage, so her other idea was an experiment about teeth.”
The precocious rising second-grader at Vinson-Bynum Elementary School in Wilson had a question: Which drinks are the worst for teeth? She wanted to perform an experiment to test the effects of various beverages on teeth.
“I’m very curious and I got curious about teeth,” Edison said. “It happened at the dentist, then we had a science fair at school, and that’s where I got the idea for my experiment.”
Human teeth are not available, so Breen searched the internet and discovered a site where she could buy coyote teeth — similar to human teeth — for her daughter’s experiment.
Young Edison’s first attempt at the experiment was a bit flawed in its design, so her mother contacted the dental school to see if someone there could explain some aspects of the science that were beyond her understanding. The administration connected her to Dr. Taneet Ghuman, a clinical assistant professor in the General Dentistry Department.
Ghuman said she was struck by Edison’s deep curiosity about dentistry and determined not to let a chance to inspire the young girl slip away.
“Because I have a special interest in research, I got an email from our dean, Dr. (Greg) Chadwick, telling me about Edison’s experiment,” Ghuman said. “I read it and smiled, thinking about a little girl out there and she has dreams, so let’s find out what’s going on.”
Ghuman got up to speed on Edison’s experiment about what happens to tooth enamel when exposed to various beverages.
“When we saw that the teeth soaked in Coca Cola started to erode within an hour and the teeth soaked in distilled water or milk remained whole, we talked about that,” she said. “I’m always curious about how to translate the understanding of information into something relevant and realistic. That’s when I thought of using beverages that people frequently drink in North Carolina.”
Other beverages used in the experiment included sweet tea, apple juice, orange juice, cranberry juice and Mountain Dew, Edison said.
Breen said her daughter might have been influenced toward dentistry by the positive experiences she has had with enthusiastic and caring dentists in her life.
“They made going to the dentists a joyful experience,” she said. “I hope today’s experience at the School of Dental Medicine will get her thinking about her future and what she might like to do.”
To reward he efforts and encourage the growth of her scientific curiosity, Chadwick and his staff gave Edison and her mother a tour of the school’s dental clinic and introduced her to some residents working there. Ghuman reflected on the impression that Edison’s first exploration of her scientific curiosity made upon her.
“We should not ignore the small ideas that children have,” Ghuman said. “Rather, we should make them bigger. I like to think Edison will remember this and will want to make something of herself because of it. Her excitement and commitment to her experiment is a good start. I think we’ve taken her confidence to another level, which is very important.”
For Chadwick, who concerns himself with educating young adults as dentists, now and for the future, Edison represents future hope for rural health and science.
“That’s what we’d like to see as we talk about increasing STEM education in our schools,” he said. “We’d like to have second- and third-graders have on their minds that there’s something cool about being a scientist. Edison has that curiosity.”
The fact that ECU has a dental school could mean that conversations about dentistry occur more than people realize, Chadwick said.
“I think we all feel inspired by Edison about the possibilities,” he said. “With this school, we now have 200 ambassadors out there caring for people, carrying a discussion about oral health and changing the dialogue. We know that dentistry has to become a part of primary care if we are to make a difference in the 30-35 percent of the population that doesn’t even have access to the care they need.”
Chadwick wants dental health care to be part of every community health clinic and part of every community conversation.
“The chances of having those conversations, perhaps with young people like Edison, increase through the presence of this dental school and the outreach to rural counties in the state,” he said. “The students who met her today were buoyed by her presence. Young scientists like Edison are the population we want to grow.”
Contact Michael Abramowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252329-9507.