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Resident Spotlight: Dr. Zhen Shen

Dr. Zhen Shen with his wife, Dr. Yejing Ge, and children, Luke and Damon.

By Dr. Moein Sadrkhani

Our next interviewee hails from the University of Texas, Houston, residency program, with one the most impressive CVs that I ever seen. He published a number of great articles and won numerous awards and did much more — it is a great honor to have him as colleague among us.

The Paper Point: After your bachelor’s from China, you started your Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology at UIUC; what was interesting for you in this subject?
Dr. Shen: Our body has 30 trillion cells; all come from one single zygote. One of the key challenges for our cells is to clone themselves faithfully by duplicating their genetic material, DNA. During my Ph.D., I was fascinated by the highly regulated molecular machinery that human cells utilize to control their duplication. In particular, I was interested in how these control mechanisms go awry, resulting in derailed proliferation in cancerous cells. My graduate work discovered a novel protein that is involved in the initiation process of DNA replication, one of the critical steps in a cell cycle. I further revealed that intriguingly, the cellular level of this protein oscillates in a regulated pattern depending on which stage of the cell cycle, and aberrant levels of this protein lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation. It is gratifying to see my findings could be used as a potential biomarker or therapeutic target for cancer treatments.

The Paper Point: After your Ph.D. and two years of postdoc training, you decided to go to dental school. What in dentistry was interesting for you?
Dr. Shen: Basic research is fundamental in advancing medicine; however, the gap from bench to bedside is daunting. From the initial identification of my protein of interest to the biochemical characterization of its cellular function, it took me more than five years. Unlike research, in dentistry, one of the aspects I enjoy most is the direct reward of being able to treat and help patients. Especially in endodontics, it is very gratifying when I follow up with patients after I finish the root canal or when a patient comes in for the second half of the root canal appointment and tells me the pain has gone or subsided significantly. I appreciate doing research where I drive the intellectual development of my own ideas and make novel exciting new discoveries. Meanwhile, I also enjoy practicing dentistry where I am at the forefront of treating patients. In fact, during my residency, I am applying my expertise in cell biology into endodontics research and studying molecular mechanisms in symptomatic and asymptomatic apical periodontitis.

The Paper Point: Wasn’t it hard to go from working in a lab to being a dental student?
Dr. Shen: I wouldn’t say it was hard, but it was definitely a challenging switch. One of the main differences is the time flexibility. While in graduate school, I arranged my own day based on my experimental needs and progresses. There were some classes, but most of the time I would search relevant literature of my interest that may either aid my research or help me stay updated in my research field, and I am used to the self-studying of literatures at my own pace. Whereas in dental school, the schedule was more rigid. I had certain deadlines and requirements to meet. It was quite an adjustment for me at the beginning. Fortunately, during my first year as a dental student, our school started a flipped classroom and case discussion-based new curriculum that involved a lot of self-studying. This format actually made my transition much easier.

The Paper Point: During your dental school, you had multiple workshops and taught dental students. What do you like about teaching, and is this the path for you?
Dr. Shen: That is a very good question. My teaching experience actually started in graduate school. I was a teaching assistant and taught undergraduate students a lab course on molecular biology techniques. Not long after I started, I realized teaching is something I enjoy a lot. When I prepare teaching materials, I like to go back to the textbooks and other resources to review any relevant background knowledge. My students at the time all came from diverse educational backgrounds. Oftentimes they thought outside the box and raised a lot of questions that made me think: Mmm, that’s a really good point, I don’t know the answer and I’ve never thought about that. Therefore, while teaching others, I also benefit from it. To my pleasure, my undergraduate students rated me as the most outstanding instructor for every single semester that I had taught, a tremendously rewarding feeling. That’s why I continued my teaching experience in dental school. Moving forward, I do consider teaching as a career option in academic dentistry.

The Paper Point: You have around 20 publications and various honors and awards, how did you balance your time and achieve all of this?
Dr. Shen: I think the short answer would be being self-motivated, organized and efficient. While in graduate school, although we have a yearly milestone that each graduate student has to meet, there is no weekly deadline or frequent exams. I think the key is to find something that suits your interest so that you are inspired and productive. Another habit I developed when I was conducting multiple research projects is using a spreadsheet, which helps me stay organized and keep track of all the progress, and it clearly enabled me to multi-task.

The Paper Point: How is the residency at UT Health School of Dentistry at Houston? Is it tougher than what you had in mind?
Dr. Shen: I really like our residency program. I am fortunate to have a unique group of co-residents who are from a diverse training background and have different work experiences. We get to share our experiences, help each other every day and have group outings frequently. I also enjoy working with our faculty, and they all encourage us to try different approaches to handle cases before we can eventually develop our own skillsets. As a new resident coming straight from dental school, I faced a steep learning curve at the beginning. Now I have been into the residency for four months; everything has started to come together, and I am picking up my pace practicing every day, exploring a wide range of techniques and approaches. Needless to say, there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome. That said, I’ve adapted useful tools to deal with stress during this training phase. I am thrilled there are many new things to learn for each case, even if it is just a simple tip. Most importantly, our program has a positive and supportive environment, where we learn as well as have fun every day.

The Paper Point: What do you do in your free time and tell us more about your family?
Dr. Shen: I just moved to Houston before starting my residency. My wife is an assistant professor running her research laboratory at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is next to my dental school. And I have two boys (an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old). In my free time, I like exploring the city or going to the beach with my family, or trying different restaurants every week. My older son loves playing chess. Taking him to chess class and tournaments and learning chess along with him have become my recent fun activities.

The Paper Point: Wish you all the best and good luck with your residency. Any final words for our readers?
Dr. Shen: Thanks again for giving me this opportunity to share my story. I was just chatting with my best friend yesterday, who is also doing the endodontic residency at UCLA, that the more I learn about endo, the more I enjoy it. Now, to my fellow endodontic residents, I hope you will enjoy the journey along the way. To my future colleagues, I’m very excited to become part of the family, and I look forward to meeting many of you at AAE meetings.

About the author: Dr. Moein Sadrkhani is a member of AAE’s Resident and New Practitioner Committee and a UCLA Endodontics resident, Class of 2020.