Sam Christensen ’05 | Teaching is in His DNA

Dr. Sam Christensen ’05 has taken an interesting career path to get where he is today—from middle-school science teacher to dental student to practitioner and now faculty member. In 2002, he was applying to dental school and working as a science teacher at Challenger Middle School in Sunnyvale. And 10 years later in 2012, he found himself back at Pacific as a row instructor, teaching fixed prosthodontics on Wednesdays. But little did he know that he would be teaching one of his former middle-school students.

“I was thrilled to find out that one of my former sixth-grade science students was a first-year student in the Class of 2015,” recounts Christensen. “As coincidence would have it, I was assigned as Adrienne Nguyen’s row instructor exactly 10 years from the last time I taught her in middle school.”  The bright, bubbly middle-school girl was now a first-year dental student. And Christensen’s path also crossed with another former middle-school student, Dr. Victoria Lim ’13, whom he saw in the Simulation Lab when she was a third-year student.

“He was one my favorite teachers, and looking back, he probably was the reason I pursued a science-related career,” says Adrienne Nguyen, Class of 2015. “I was surprised when I realized Dr. ‘C’ would be one of my instructors, but I was excited to become his student again, 10 years later. He hasn’t changed one bit. He is still a kid at heart, loves all things superheroes and still rocks the bold and crazy ties he wears to school.”

But how did Christensen make the transition from science teacher to dental professional?  Christensen attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. He thought he wanted to be a pediatrician and planned to go to medical school. “After graduation from LMU, I accepted a job teaching social studies at a private middle school in the Los Angeles area,” he said. “I thought of it as a temporary job because I was planning to go to medical school when I took the position and needed to finish my medical school prerequisites. I was as surprised as anyone that I enjoyed teaching and had an aptitude for that grade level. I was well suited to it.”

While teaching, Christensen worked in earnest on his prerequisites at California State University, Los Angeles, and then moved up north to Silicon Valley because his parents were there and he could begin studying for the MCATs full time while finishing some courses. “When I was back in the Bay Area, I took the MCATs, sent in my medical school applications and set up interviews,” said Christensen. Then, he accepted a job teaching science to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Challenger Middle School.

“I love opening kids’ eyes and taking seemingly complicated things and making them digestible,” Christensen says with enthusiasm. “I found that I could get eighth-graders to do organic chemistry as long it was explained to them in a way that was understandable. They did some physics and quantum mechanics, and those skills are very applicable to being a dentist. You need to put yourself in their position or you can’t relate to them or teach effectively. I don’t care how many credentials you have, if you cannot relate to your students you have no business being in front of a class.”

[pullquote]I love opening kids’ eyes and taking seemingly complicated things and making them digestible.[/pullquote]

Christensen started dating Jen—his future wife—and elected to switch gears. “We became engaged and even though Jen was willing to go to medical school with me, I decided that dentistry was more conducive to the lifestyle we wanted to have,” he said. “I called all of the medical schools and told them to remove my applications and told them I was going to dental school instead.”

At age 28, Christensen started as a first-year dental student at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry and married Jen during his first week of school. He served as his class liaison for the American Dental Education Association. “As an older dental student, it helped having some more life perspectives,” said Christensen. “I had a skill set from teaching and that gave me the ability to relate to my instructors and patients a little differently. And I think that worked to my advantage.” As a student, Christensen also knew that he wanted to someday teach at the dental school. “I meet with Dr. Geissberger before I graduated and he offered me a position on the fixed faculty as a row instructor.”

Christensen owns Central Coast Dental, a restorative and aesthetic dentistry practice in Aptos, California, works as a row instructor in the Department of Integrated Reconstructive Dental Sciences on Wednesdays and enjoys spending time with his wife Jen and their three children—Ellie (7), Luke (5) and Clark (17 months).

Working at the dental school provides Christensen not only with the opportunity to teach students but to interact with colleagues. “When you’re the boss in a small private practice, it’s nice to have a peer group of dental professionals to go to, such as other faculty members at the dental school.”

When asked why he enjoys teaching, Christensen replied, “The dental students keep you stimulated and it’s nice to see their fresh-faced enthusiasm. But what I enjoy the most is introducing dental students to the Dugoni School culture and being an ambassador for the profession.”