Internet Edition

Issue No. 5, March 1999

New Academic Staff - Dr Stephen Hsu

Stephen Hsu

As I sit across the table from this man who has been my roommate for the past year and conduct this interview, I realise that I know very little about him. I know he is married and has a four-year old son. The newest addition to the academic staff, however, is a quiet man. His table is free of the clutter I see on mine, the computer monitor on his desk is adjusted to an exact height with a stack of books under it. If he has a message for me, it goes neatly on a post-it note near my telephone. I have never seen him lose his cool and he is always polite, soft-spoken and a wonderful officemate. You can tell he is careful of the small things in life. Good thing for a pedodontist and researcher, I am thinking. As the interview progresses however, I see a slightly different man from the quiet chap that occupies the other corner. Quiet certainly, but passionate about his research and a deep thinker.

Stephen Hsu (pronounced 'shi') completed his DDS in Taiwan, a six-year programme. He spent the next two years in military service much like the young men in Singapore. Subsequent to this, he returned to Dental School in Taiwan for a two-year internship, collecting the GPR and AEGD (Advanced Education in General Dentistry). Those two years provided him with a good grounding in basic Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Oral Pathology, Histology and embryology, which formed some of the foundations for his later research. The internship also provided him with postings to ENT, Plastic Surgery and Internal Medicine Wards where he served an identical role as his medical counterparts.

His eyes light up when he begins describing his education in the United States, where he spent the next six years in University of Iowa. Armed with a scholarship from Taiwan to do academic research, he chose Iowa over the University of Michigan to do pedodontics. In the first year, he candidly admits, he had two 'C' grades, which 'were quite bad'. Scholarship money also ran out after this year. Fortunately, in addition to the 'C's, he managed to garner two 'A's in statistics. With this, he obtained a job as a research assistant to a bio-statistician, which helped a little. His aptitude for dental research was apparent when he won research awards for four straight years, which helped make ends meet.

The lesser known enamel organic matrix, comprising only 1% of enamel but playing an important part in caries control

When embarking on his PhD after his pedodontic training, he chose electron microscopy as a minor focus. Interestingly, Dental Public Health was also one of his other minors. Stephen explains, "with DPH, I wanted a macro-view of dentistry, the big picture and not be entirely lost in a micro-world". During his PhD, the laser grabbed his attention and he turned his research towards using laser light in secondary caries prevention. "Light shapes your life both physically and spiritually…life begins from light" he waxes lyrical about his favourite topic. I observe that he is not so quiet anymore.

Instead of following research trends which aimed to melt the crystalline structure of enamel at temperatures of up to 1000 degrees centigrade, he looked at the small things – the inorganic matrix which comprises less than 1% of enamel – using much lower temperatures. He relates the biblical story of how Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho with sound resonance to illustrate his point. The journey was not smooth. He says, "I spent the first two years doing pilot study after pilot study. Until up to six months before my graduation, I did not see the light". Stephen adds with a laugh, "My supervisor, Jim Wefel even asked me how many more years did I want to spend doing my PhD!" Sticking to his guns, his determination paid off and resulted in a paradigm shift in the way researches look at laser caries prevention. At present, his work has yielded the highest reduction in caries activity in dental literature. This approach has been vindicated by two international awards and the prestige of completing his PhD in the shortest time in Iowa.

Stephen is enthusiastic and wants to embark on clinical trials. You can be sure that he will have a meticulous approach to this as well. Back in our office, as I watch him peer down the microscope at tiny slivers of lased enamel in his usual methodical fashion, I am reminded to appreciate the good in small things.

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