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Periodontist honored for excellence in teaching

by Carolyn Pennington - August 27, 2007

The teaching style of Dr. Frank Nichols, professor of periodontology at the UConn School of Dental Medicine, has long been popular with his students.

Nichols believes that’s because he doesn’t just emphasize the new trends in dentistry, he also talks about some of the older techniques and approaches that still work well.

Nichols’ approach is so popular with students that for two years in a row, he has been honored with the Kaiser Permanente Excellence in Teaching Award.

“I’m very honored to be recognized by the students,” says Nichols.

Nichols, who joined the dental school faculty in 1985 after receiving his dental degree from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., has seen many changes during the past 20 years.

“As dentistry has changed, so has what the students are interested in learning,” he explains.

“For instance, dental implants are now a critical part of the curriculum, but when I first started here, we had just begun talking about implants because they were mainly being done in Europe.”

Nichols splits his time three ways – teaching, research, and patient care.

The teaching component, which includes both clinical instruction and lecturing and organizing courses, takes at least half his time.

The rest of his time is focused on research and treating patients as a member of the University Dentists practice.

Dr. Frank Nichols in the clinic teaching dental students.
Dr. Frank Nichols in the clinic teaching dental students.
Photo by Janine Gelineau

Which does he prefer?

“That’s a tough one. I like it all,” he says.

“Because I wear all three hats, I have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the importance of each and how they are relevant to each other.”

As a clinician, for example, he treats patients with periodontal disease, and as a researcher he’s studying the intricacies of what causes the disease.

His interest focuses on how immune cells react when exposed to bacteria in the mouth – bacteria that lead to gum disease. As a professor, he can offer his students a more complete understanding of this very common problem, which impacts 80 percent of Americans.

Since nearly half of UConn’s dental graduates stay in Connecticut, it’s not unusual for Nichols to hear from his former students – whether it’s to consult on a case, refer a patient, or invite him to a reunion.

“It’s very gratifying to see how the students progress over the years,” he says, “not just in their skill level, but in their maturity and judgment. They can go from not knowing which end of a dental instrument to hold, to being an impressive practitioner and someone I’m very comfortable referring family members to see.”

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