“DO YOU KNOW WHY YOU’RE HERE?”
That’s the first question Rene Chu [DMD/08] asks every patient who takes a seat in his dental chair. As an endodontist – a specialist who primarily performs root canals – Chu finds that many patients don’t have a clear understanding of what a root canal is, or why they need one.
“I allow lots of time for conversation,” says the 2008 dentistry alumnus, the only endodontist on the faculty of the Dr. Gerald Niznick College of Dentistry. “It’s a trust-builder.”
If someone were to ask Chu “Do you know why you’re here?” when he’s supervising dental students who are nervously performing their first root canals, he’d have a ready answer.
After receiving a fellowship and earning his master’s in endodontics at the University of Iowa in 2013, he was qualified to practise anywhere in the United States or Canada. But in 2014, he chose to join the U of M as an assistant professor and division head of endodontics, aiming to give something back to the school that shaped him.
“Manitoba is my home,” says Chu, who was born in Winnipeg to immigrant parents from Hong Kong. “Now that I’m familiar with other dental schools, I appreciate even more that our class sizes are small and there is direct, personal interaction between professors and students.”
At age 36, Chu looks youthful enough to be a new grad. He knows from experience that some patients react with distrust to younger-looking practitioners.
“I have learned to manage that by explaining things really well and showing that I’m an expert,” he says. “I tell students, ‘You shouldn’t be shy about what you know.’ We focus so much on teaching hand skills and knowledge, but we also need to encourage students to develop a voice.”
Like most dentistry professors, Chu spends the equivalent of one day per week at his private practice, Corydon Endodontics. He’ll soon be joined there by a U of M graduate who is completing a master’s in endodontics at the University of British Columbia (one of only two Canadian schools that offer the degree).
Chu expects the new specialist to teach at the college as well. “I want to mentor colleagues who want to help at the school,” he says.
For Chu, the key attraction of “endo” is a feeling of independent mastery that sounds Zen-like when he describes it. “It’s a very peaceful thing. There’s no drilling. No noise. No mess. I have classical music playing low in the background. It’s just me, the tooth and my assistant.”
On the other hand, the professor is outgoing and active in his field. He has chaired the endodontic section of the American Dental Education Association and sits on the scientific advisory board of the Journal of Endodontics. He was recently inducted as a fellow of the Pierre Fauchard Academy, a service organization of dentistry leaders.
“These organizations let me meet people with diverse viewpoints and bring back information,” he says. “It makes the school better, and it makes me better.”
Chu recognizes his younger self in students who are unsure of themselves, because he was like that for much of dental school. In his fourth year, there was a moment that still resonates for him.
“Dr. Lawrence Stockton was the head of our clinics. He was strict, but also supportive. I think that year, I started to believe that I could succeed. One day, Dr. Stockton called me to his office. All he told me was that I was doing really well, and everyone was happy with my progress.
“Feedback like that can mean so much when you’re crunched down, working so hard. It doesn’t have to be a standing ovation. It can just be like, ‘That was a great session.’ Sometimes we overlook the importance of a reaffirming comment to help students believe in themselves.”