Wendy Clark, DDS, MS, was inspired by a smile. Her brother was born with a cleft lip and palate, and seeing how his dental team helped him show joy and love without hesitation led her to a career in dentistry. And throughout her career as a dentist in private practice, and now in her role as an assistant professor in the prosthodontics department, she continues to thrive on the smiles of her students.
It’s not just their smiles that keep Clark going; she recently received a UNC Chapel Hill University Teaching Award for her efforts in the classroom, something her students took the time to nominate her for, and that means the world to Clark.
“When I saw that I was nominated I was surprised and honored, of course! I take such pride and passion in my teaching that it made me feel good,” she said. “I was surprised when I won, when I saw the prestige of past winners. It was when I read that I had so much student response, that I cried. I value my students so much and that their appreciation is reciprocated means the world to me.”
The student voices were collectively enthusiastic for Clark’s work in the classroom and the way she relates to her students.
“I once asked her who she thought her boss was as we discussed how to handle conflicting inputs from various work relationships,” said Matt Manley, DDS candidate ‘24. “She said ‘the students are my boss. You pay me to be here for your education.’ This revealed her deep insight into the dynamic relationship of learners and educators. Dr. Clark is someone I not only enjoy learning from, but I enjoy learning with her, because she has not forgotten that she is still a learner, too.”
“We have great faculty here and among them, Dr. Clark definitely stands out,” said Reagan Page, DDS candidate ‘24. “I think what makes her stand out is her ability to connect with students, understand our challenges, and help us make the most out of our time in school, while also pushing us to learn and challenge ourselves. She truly believes in us, and that feeling is palpable and has certainly helped me on discouraging days.”
Clark first came to ASOD in July, 2017. Her husband is from South Dakota, and she was from Georgia, so they decided to meet in the middle, choosing North Carolina to put down roots and raise their two children. She came from a private dental practice, but she knew she always wanted to teach.
“I thought a specialty behind me would make me a better educator,” she said of her decision to specialize in prosthodontics. “I initially thought I’d do orthodontics, but I was a danger to myself and others when I was bending and clipping wires in ortho lab. When I took the complete denture class, I truly found my passion.”
As an educator, Clark draws inspiration from her students, but she also had great role models along her educational path, as well. She credits her dental school group practice leader Conrad Nenn and prosthodontics mentor Daniel Givan for their teaching styles, and she said she is fortunate to have great colleagues at her side that she can bounce ideas off and learn from their teaching methods, too. Clark said the Covid-19 pandemic has also helped shape her teaching style, and she thinks her students are reaping the benefits.
“I’ve gained a different appreciation for what my students had to go through; seeing their resilience as they had to go from in-person to remote to hybrid and back in-person was inspirational to me,” she said.
Clark now creates course materials that can be digitally shared and keeps recordings and other digital materials available for her students. She said she knows that some students work better at night, and having ready access to course materials can benefit them. She also keeps in mind that not everyone responds the same way to technology and may need more time to learn.
“It’s easy for us to perceive that students are really good with tech, and are fast learners, and it helps to see through the lens that many of them are actually novices,” she said.
Still, Clark sees the future of her profession and her students’ future work changing rapidly. She covers 3D printing in her classes, and her students work with 3D printers already, but Clark said the future could include printing teeth and tissue.
“3D printing is the future,” she said. “It will play a bigger role in the courses as the field develops. We’re doing it now, but the materials are still in the early stages and will get better. The students I teach now will be 3D printing in their offices.”