Meet Olin’s First Dentist - An Interview with Alison Wu ‘14

Gretchen Rice '20

CDM 2018 Clinician’s Ceremony held at the end of second-year marks the beginning of our clinical training.

I see you’re the only alum who has ever gone to dental school!  Why did you decide to become a dentist?

I have always looked up to one of my uncles, who is an orthodontist. The decision to go to dental school was something I wanted to do from a young age. I was also interested in engineering and fell in love with Olin during Candidate’s Weekend. (My major was E:Bioengineering).  After actually working with my uncle during a few summers, I knew that dental school was something I wanted to do. Shadowing experiences also helped me solidify my decision.

Did you wait to attend Columbia University College of Dental Medicine after Olin?  What were your classes like?

I started dental school right after Olin. I did take the summer in between to enjoy time with my family before the craziness of dental school started.

Classes at Columbia mostly consist of hours-long lectures. For the first year and a half, we take classes with the medical students as part of our integrated biomedical curriculum. Lectures are recorded, so you can choose how to allocate your time in preparing for exams, assignments, and clinic load. The lectures tend to be long PowerPoint presentations and nothing like what we had at Olin. Sometimes, I struggled to stay engaged, so having a great study buddy and recorded lectures really helped me. Some classes are seminar-based, where you present cases that you’ve done during clinic time.

Preclinic is more project or case-based, with practical tests every month or so. Individual preparations, laboratory steps, and restorations done on practice plastic teeth are signed off by faculty or TAs. As clinic time approached at the beginning of third year, we were given more preclinic time, and the number of lecture classes decreased. 

The way clinic is run is currently changing as a newer, more modern clinic floor is expected to open this fall. Students are divided into collaborative group practices with vertical integration. The clinic years are no longer divided, so third- and fourth-year students work on the same floor at the same time. The idea is to facilitate students learning from each other in treating patients under the Comprehensive Care model. Rather than having a set number of procedures to complete for graduation (i.e. 20 crowns and 4 dentures), we are assessed on how many cases we complete. Each patient we are assigned is categorized into case types ranging from simple restorative work to more complex prosthodontic work. We also have to complete competencies in various disciplines, which ensure that we know how to perform a specific type of procedure without any outside help. These competencies are self-scheduled with calibrated faculty members during one of your assigned clinic times. Clinic can sometimes be overwhelming with so much going on at the same time, but it’s nice to know that we have supportive faculty there. Clinic days can be exhausting, but it can be quite exciting at the same time with all the different types of cases you have planned.


A day in the lab

Example of temporary restoration for an onlay preparation I made during preclinic


How was the transition from Olin to a more “traditional” school?

The transition wasn’t difficult in terms of dealing with the academic load. The challenge for me was transitioning from a feedback-oriented environment like Olin to a more traditional system at a long-standing institution like Columbia. Unfortunately, change doesn’t happen as quickly in such an established system. Unlike other medical fields, dentistry largely continues to focus on traditional methods. I frequently find myself having to implement my own systems outside of the resources that we are given. This has made all aspects of student life more manageable and organized for myself, as well as my peers.

How has Olin helped you at Columbia?  And how do you think it’ll help you beyond dental school?

Olin has given me the foundation to communicate issues and come up with quick solutions to problems. The Olin community has also continued to give me so much support, and I truly appreciate each and every person that has helped me get to this point in my life. The constant encouragement from my Olin friends has helped me navigate through some of the most stressful times in dental school. I have been able to manage my own time effectively as well, competing on the Columbia University Women's and Coed Table Tennis teams for the last three years. 

Olin has given me the ability to implement design thinking in everything I do, even beyond dental school. This industry is undergoing a lot of change at this time, and it’s exciting to see how technological advancements will impact patient care. 


 Representing the Columbia University Women’s Table Tennis Team at the 2016 NCTTA Nationals held at Round Rock, TX.


What’s a typical day like for you, now that you’re out of Olin?

The first three semesters of dental school are strictly lectures covering anatomy, basic sciences, microbiology, and other essential topics. We are graded under an Honors/Pass/Fail system, which encourages the sharing of resources between students, since there is no need for competition. We are able to take the first part of our National Boards at the end of this period. Fourth semester is preclinical lab time to help prepare for when we transition into summer clinic, where we begin treating patients and will continue doing this through graduation.

Currently, my fourth-year summer schedule is packed. We usually have clinic every day from 9 AM - 7 PM. We have control over how long each appointment should be and when we schedule patients. It is difficult to work on cases that require extensive lab work, since we don’t have designated lab incorporated within our schedules. When we are not in clinic, we are either helping out third-year students or are on in-house rotations from 9 AM - 5 PM. These rotations consist of Emergency, Triage, Pediatric Dentistry, and Oral Surgery. In addition, I am currently writing my applications for residency programs and will be taking the second part of our National Boards as well as licensing exams soon.

Now that you have this outside view, do you have any suggestions or advice for current Olin students?

My biggest advice would be to understand that the experience at a conventional school will be very different from your Olin experience. It can be difficult working with those who haven’t learned to give feedback in an effective manner, had the Olin experience, or had experience with design thinking. Persistent students are the ones who enact major curricular and organizational change, and with Olin's background in design thinking, I believe that any dental school would be lucky to have you as a student.

For those specifically interested in the medical or dental field, I’d suggest fulfilling all prerequisites as early as possible, especially chemistry, which is probably the most difficult one to manage at Olin. I know that Olin's chemistry curriculum has undergone some changes, so you would need to check with your advisor about how to go about taking the necessary chemistry classes.  Organic Chemistry II would have been a limiting factor for me in fulfilling my prerequisite. I luckily was able to take Organic Chemistry I and Organic Chemistry II my sophomore year, which allowed me the flexibility to take the rest of my requirements in a manageable fashion.

Feel free to reach out to me at if you have any questions regarding the dental school application process or life as a dental student – I’d love to help in any way I can! 



Posted in: Alumni Speak; Grad School