Faculty and Staff, Orthodontics, Pediatric Dentistry, Research

Faculty member explores new avenues in pediatric dentistry, orthodontics

John Christensen, DDS, MS, MS, consults on a patient with third-year pediatric resident Mark Veazie, DDS.

John Christensen, DDS, MS, MS.

Teaching has always interested John Christensen, DDS, MS, MS, and his work at Adams School of Dentistry lets him capitalize on both his skills in pediatric dentistry and orthodontics and his passion for education, while working with residents in both departments on clinical care and research.

Christensen’s father was a pediatric dentist in his hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, and Christensen always thought he’d either follow in his dad’s footsteps, become a physician or a high school teacher.

“I liked all the teachers I’d had, and I liked sharing and learning new things,” he said.

Despite his interest in education, Christensen, 68, got his bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard University, then enrolled in dental school at Iowa College of Dentistry. After deciding to pursue both pediatric dentistry and orthodontics, he specialized at ASOD, earning master’s degrees in both areas.

“I found myself leaning toward a dual degree because at the time, orthodontics and pediatrics were having quite a turf war,” he said. “I thought it was a great idea to treat both of them, and I found a happy medium. So, I did both.”

Pediatric dentistry and orthodontics

Christensen started private practice in Durham and grew his skills in pediatric dentistry and orthodontics. Henry Fields, DDS, MS, MSD, a mentor and faculty member at UNC, asked him to teach the orthodontic component of the pediatric dental program on alternate Fridays after his graduation.  After several years, he coordinated with ADOD’s Jessica Lee, DDS, PhD, on a faculty appointment at Carolina.

“I’ve satisfied my teaching itch by coming to school on a regular basis,” he said. “The program has really expanded here in the past two or three years. The diversity here is amazing. My dental class was 90% male, so that has changed dramatically.”

Christensen, center, with Veazie, left, and first-year pediatric resident Jason Lin, DDS, right, enjoys sharing his knowledge with others and learning from the residents he works with.

Christensen said he’s pleased with the intellectual curiosity and eagerness of the residents he works with and is amazed by how the profession has advanced with the use of technology and other tools. He’s also realized an interest in research and finds it rewarding to help the residents with their research endeavors, particularly with autotransplantation and dental trauma.

“The interaction with faculty and residents is very satisfying,” he said. “Where else can you pick the brains of the best of the best? Teaching is great and sharing my knowledge. It’s actually selfish, because I learn as much from them as they do from me. It’s benefitted my career in many ways.”

Broad horizons

Christensen’s work at ASOD has opened new doors for him, professionally. He edits textbooks, speaks and presents at national and international meetings, and explores research avenues he didn’t expect. Some of the most rewarding work he’s doing involves collaborating with the UNC Dental Trauma team, seeing patients injured in motor vehicle or sports accidents or children who were born without teeth. The team treats patients from North Carolina and beyond, including recent patients from states like Michigan, Arizona and Louisiana.

“Our team has become known throughout the U.S.,” he said. “They come to our trauma team and have surgery here at UNC. We’re developing a reputation across the nation that this is how to treat kids that are still growing.”

Sharing knowledge

Christensen is able to indulge his love of teaching with a newly revived interest in research as he helps guide residents through clinical and research questions. He and the residents have been exploring dental autotransplantation and why people are doing it, looking at whether certain teeth are better to transplant than others, and exploring parents’ views on the procedure. One study on the topic has already been published, and there are several other articles in progress. Another upcoming project will look at what financial barriers keep people from seeking such treatment.

Christensen enjoys bringing attention to these projects and sharing their findings broadly, including talking about ASOD’s team approach with other dental schools.

“It’s important to elevate the visibility of what we’re doing. We want to share it,” he said. “Pediatric dentists are sharers, and it helps take care of patients that don’t have hope or have had to deal with [a dental problem] for years. We are patient advocates. I want to share that with everyone else, and it promotes UNC. UNC has been great to me. It’s given me all sorts of advantages, and they trained me, and this is a way to give back to the school, too.”

Leading by example

Christensen and Lin reviewing patient cases.

Christensen also gives back to the students and residents the best way he can, both with his time and with sage advice. He tries to lead by example and maintain a good balance between work, family and self.

“By far, having grandkids is one of the few things that people promised would be great, and it is,” he said. “We love doing things with family. My wife and I left our families in Iowa, and we were alone [in North Carolina] for a long time. I thought our kids would do the same, but everybody’s still close, and we get to see everyone all the time.”

Still, Christensen said he recognizes the advantages he has due to his tenure at ASOD. He said he is fortunate to have worked with the late William R. Proffit, DDS, MS, PhD, and the late Ted Oldenburg, DDS, as well as the current heads of the departments of orthodontics and pediatrics and dental public health.

“I love UNC, and I can’t say enough of what they’ve done for me,” he said. “They have been kind and gracious to let me come in. I enjoy working with the residents; their curiosity inspires me, and I love to share.”