Getting to know Melbourne Dental School’s first female Asian-Australian Deputy Head

It has been almost 30 years since Dr Rebecca Wong began her journey in the field of dentistry, starting off as a young student at the University of Melbourne, to recently accepting the role of Deputy Head of the Melbourne Dental School. As an inspirational leader, she shares some personal stories on life, study, and career, all of which have led her to where she is today.

Bridging the gap into dentistry

Growing up in Malaysia, Rebecca didn’t have an initial interest in dentistry, but she somehow ‘fell into it’, in a good way. Like many 18 year olds, she wasn't exactly sure what career she wanted to pursue but she did know she wanted to help improve people's health. She enrolled in the Bachelor of Optometry at the University of Melbourne but transferred into Dentistry in her second year. Rebecca instantly knew it was what she was looking for, as she found the course to be quite interesting and provided a fantastic opportunity for a hands-on approach to learning. This opened a whole new world of excitement for her.

When she graduated from her dental degree, Rebecca worked in private practices in Ballarat and New Zealand before deciding to specialise in restorative and prosthodontics in 1996. Soon after, she returned to Malaysia to start a family, and began her academic career in the dental faculty of a well-known university. Her teaching career began to take flight, and Rebecca found herself back in Australia pursuing her PhD in dental materials at the University of Melbourne.

Celebrating diversity and strength in a pandemic 

Prior to her new role, Rebecca was the Director of Teaching and Learning at the Melbourne Dental School, working closely with the Department of Health and Services Victoria. Teaching had become such a big part of Rebecca’s career, and she was committed to providing the highest quality of education in clinical dentistry and practices in line with the school’s vision. When the pandemic hit Australia in 2020, like many other universities, students, and staff here of the University had to acclimatise to an online learning and teaching environment with many practical and hands-on courses impacted. There was a serious concern that students might not be able to catch up with their learning and thus impact their studies.

“2020 was a year that not only revealed weaknesses but also pushed us to find our strengths in managing risks and challenges that came our way.”

Rebecca’s team worked very hard to ensure continuity of learning and discovered innovative ways to increase student engagement through case discussions and interactive lessons online. New programs were introduced, enabling students to safely learn from home so they could familiarise themselves with procedures upon returning to campus. Final year students presented case studies via Zoom, allowing for feedback from the examiners. The Dental School also investigated the placing of students in rural areas where Covid-19 restrictions were more relaxed, thus enabling students to have the face-to-face experience with patients and to practice their scope of dentistry.

There was immense support from everyone involved, including Professor Alastair Sloan, Head of the Melbourne Dental School. “Professor Sloan was an excellent leader in terms of guiding the team and providing a clear vision of where we need to be. It was quite a unifying experience for the School,” she said.

Life as a dentist

“Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living, their initial reaction is to cover their teeth, followed by a surprised look on their face. This is followed by the burning question of ‘how do you stand looking at teeth all day?’” Rebecca laughs. It can sometimes feel stressful to treat patients who are firstly, already in pain and need immediate attention.

Secondly, a dentist may feel like they are invading a patient’s ‘personal space’ with a very ‘in-your-face’ treatment. “That’s why a huge part of our job is not just to treat the patient, but to ensure they are relaxed and comfortable when seated on the dentist chair,” she explains.

Rebecca enjoys working with older patients as they often have interesting stories to share. “Dental treatments sometimes involve several visits, so in time you end up having a close relationship with your patient and listening to their stories about life.” When Rebecca was posted to her dental practice in Ballarat, she’d often have patients tell her she was the first female dentist they had ever seen. “The general perception is that with dentistry, you are still able to have a 9 to 5 job, with a healthy work-life balance, so it’s good to see more women in dentistry nowadays.”

Rebecca is also the Acting Head of the Specialist Prosthodontic Unit, where she manages specialist referrals and patients from metropolitan and rural Victoria. Outside the University and Hospital, Rebecca is an examiner for the Australian Dental Council, Royal Australasian College of Dental Surgeons and La Trobe University in Bendigo. To date, she has more than 30 publications and scholarly works to her name and had been previously awarded with two research grants. In 2014, Rebecca received the I.J. Marks and T.C. Adamson Prize for the most significant contribution to the advancement of dental education from the Melbourne Dental School.

Truth and ‘floss-sophy’

Over the last 14 years, Dr Wong has played various roles within the Melbourne Dental School. Her philosophy is that everyone has their own skills and expertise, and it’s important to focus on those strengths and build up those around you. During the pandemic, one would find that different people manage situations differently, and instead of making them conform to what you may think is right, instead allow them to use their abilities best in that situation to achieve the desired outcome.

“Looking back, I feel my career path has been extremely rewarding and I am thrilled to be still doing dentistry after more than three decades.”

As the new Deputy Head of the Melbourne Dental School, she intends to focus on providing advice for best clinical practices for the School and aims to improve the overall student and learning experience. This in turn, she hopes, would support them in achieving a long-lasting, fulfilling, and ever-changing career like hers.