With 14 unique programs, a degree from the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) prepares students for careers in a variety of fields. CAFNR alumni impact the largest industries and address the most significant challenges in the world today, including animal and human health, environmental sustainability, food nutrition, tourism and agricultural policy.
Two of those degree programs – nutrition and exercise physiology (NEP) and biochemistry – offer interested students a pathway to careers in the medical field, including dentistry.
There are currently a handful of CAFNR students pursuing that track, including seniors Christian Fenton (NEP) and Cooper Thelen (biochemistry). Both plan to continue their education at dental school after earning their undergraduate degrees from Mizzou. Fenton, for example, has already been accepted into the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Dentistry through the Reserved Admissions Program.
“I always knew that I wanted to one day work in the health field, and I’ve always liked working with my hands,” Fenton said. “In high school, I wasn’t sure exactly which part of the medical field I wanted to pursue, so my mom suggested that I shadow a few individuals. I spent a day following my dentist and realized that working with teeth seemed fascinating. I immediately thought that it was something I could do.”
‘It’s All Tied Together’
Fenton grew up in Columbia and said she chose the nutrition and exercise physiology degree program at the University of Missouri because of its focus on the influences of nutrition and physical activity on human health and disease. She said that with state-of-the-art facilities, there are multiple opportunities to see firsthand how exercise and healthy eating can affect an individual’s personal health, which also includes tooth health.
“A major part of this degree has us discussing the food we eat and how it affects our overall health,” Fenton said. “Part of the eating process obviously involves our teeth, and the NEP degree program has showed me how nutrition plays a vital role when related to oral health. It’s all tied together.”
Fenton added that her nutrition-related courses, especially her clinical practice classes, are packed with information that she will one day be able to pass onto her patients.
“Our teeth are incredibly important,” Fenton said. “They are one of the first features you see when you meet someone and vital when it comes eating. Obviously, if you neglect care for your teeth there are multiple health problems that can occur. My clinical courses have been very beneficial, as I’m learning how to talk to my patients and understand their needs, especially when issues arise.”
Fenton applied to the UMKC School of Dentistry Reserved Admission Program during the completion of her sophomore year at MU. Entry into the program is available for students in both Missouri and Kansas who are in the beginning years of their undergraduate degree.
“There were several steps that I had to complete over the course of last year, including an application, a couple different meetings, a dental admission test and a faculty interview,” Fenton said. “I’m so excited for this next step. UMKC was where I wanted to go for dental school. I already know a few people from my high school who are going there, so I’m already going to have some connections, which is going to be really nice.”
Fenton said she is interested in general dentistry at the moment, but is open to the potential of specializing. Eventually she said she would like to open a practice in rural Missouri. Fenton completed an outreach program in Monett, Mo., through MU Extension recently and found a passion for helping those who don’t have easy access to healthcare.
“I really want to be an associate early on and find a good mentor who can show me how to run a business,” Fenton said. “I want to learn where I’m strong and where I can improve before I jump into my own practices. I loved the outreach program that I was a part of as well, and I can see myself starting a practice in a rural area. It’s vital that we help those rural parts of the state with healthcare.”
The Power of a Smile
Like Fenton, Thelen also grew up in Columbia before choosing to come to Mizzou. An interest in life sciences led Thelen to the biochemistry degree program.
“I gravitated toward biochemistry because I thought it would provide the most well-rounded understanding of the life sciences by tying together coursework from biology, chemistry, physics and genetics,” Thelen said. “I was also interested in doing undergraduate research and liked that biochemistry students could use their training in a wide variety of areas.”
Thelen said his interest in dentistry came from his own orthodontic treatment as a high school student. He said that experience showed him the power that a smile could have on a person’s self-confidence.
“Before having braces, I had always been embarrassed to show my teeth when I smiled, so the idea that I could work every day to help others overcome any insecurities they had about their own smile immediately attracted me to explore dentistry as a career,” Thelen said.
Thelen has shadowed several dentists during his time at MU, saying that those experiences confirmed to him that dentistry is the right career for him to pursue. He added that the biochemistry degree program has helped prepare him for the rigorous academic schedule of dental school. Plus, Thelen’s time as an executive officer of the Biochemistry Club has provided him with numerous leadership opportunities.
“Majoring in biochemistry has helped prepare me for the academic rigor of dental school by providing an excellent foundation for the Doctor of Dental Surgery curriculum, which includes courses such as pharmacology, physiology and oncology, all of which require a deep understanding of biomolecular structures and interactions,” Thelen said. “My time in the Biochemistry Club and working as a peer learning assistant for biochemistry classes has helped me improve my leadership and communication skills, which are important because dentists are often the managers of their practice and must work effectively with a team of hygienists, assistants and technicians to provide oral healthcare.”
Thelen said that the faculty within the biochemistry degree program have been incredibly supportive throughout his time as a Tiger, too.
“They truly want their students to learn and always encourage questions in the classroom,” Thelen said. “They also will try to get to know students on a more personal level and take interest in our long-term career goals. Even after a semester ends, many faculty will stay in contact with their students for the rest of their time at Mizzou and make themselves available to provide guidance for research, internships, graduate school applications and professional endeavors.”
Thelen plans to attend dental school after earning his biochemistry degree from MU. He said his ultimate goal is to eventually work in a nonprofit health clinic so that he can provide dental care to those who need it but cannot afford it.
“Dentistry blends my love for science with my passion for service, and I look forward to being able to give back to my community in a way that is personally meaningful to me,” Thelen said. “I’ve learned so much about how dentists can be agents of change and help reduce disparities in access to oral healthcare by providing an essential service to underserved populations. I’m excited to one day be able to provide those opportunities to people in need.”