The Art of Dentistry: Global Collaboration Brings Amazing World of Microscopic Photography to SF

Art and dentistry collided on August 12 as the dental school was transformed into a fascinating art gallery — a first for the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. Dental students, faculty, alumni, guests and exchange students from Peking Medical University, School of Stomatology gathered for a unique glimpse into the human body at the deepest levels. What they found was a colorful collection of images that gave them new appreciation for the sheer beauty of nature under the microscope.

As part of the “Art of Dentistry” showcase, large-format works of microscopic photography from a new book, Poetic Life by Dr. Tie Jun Li, were prominently displayed throughout the Dugoni School of Dentistry’s first floor. The exhibit featured 34 pieces of photography displayed around the themes of Genesis, Flourish, Succession and Harmony. A special darkroom gallery set up in Dorfman Hall featured a montage of photography digitally projected on the walls. Participants enjoyed the pieces while listening to music on wireless headphones.

The artist, Dr. Tie Jun Li, is an associate dean and professor of oral pathology at Peking Medical University, School of Stomatology in Beijing, China. His distinguished career in oral pathology has spanned three decades and he is considered a renowned expert in the field of odontogenic tumor research.

“As a pathologist, he is trained to assess the slides of blood vessels, teeth, muscle tissue and bone tissue with an objective, clinical eye. However, as a photographer, he appreciates the sheer beauty of nature under the microscope,” notes his artist statement. It’s his passion to artistically show these images and share them with the world.

“In fact, every cell has a story to tell, every molecule works a miracle,” remarked Li to Chang Jun, a writer with China Daily USA, who was on hand to cover the art show. “They are themselves very artistic and have waited thousands of years to be explored and to be appreciated.”

Dr. Tori Nan Xiao, a former student of Li’s nearly a decade ago in China and currently an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the Dugoni School of Dentistry, says Li works in a medium where science and art exist in harmony.

“Dr. Li aims to capture the beauty within ordinary structures,” said Xiao. “His artwork moves viewers to consider pain and dentistry not just as physical deterioration and disease, but as part of a larger whole in the context of life. Perhaps one of the most moving sentiments of Dr. Li’s photography is that in many ways, the images embody the spirit of dentistry as both a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”

Explore the images

Student volunteers from the school’s Global Relations Club organized the event, with additional support facilitated by Dr. Colin Wong ’65, adjunct professor and Dugoni Foundation board member. The students, led by Richard Ly and Laura Tsu both from the Class of 2017, worked on designing the exhibition—everything from choosing, enlarging and framing the images to designing the invitation and program and determining where the images would be displayed in collaboration with the school’s Design & Photography team. “School leadership and the development office fostered the dream of helping to bring family together on campus,” said Ly. “Through a digitally enhanced dark room gallery and physical displays, we were able to innovate in our own way—on school grounds!” (Read Richard Ly’s related article in this same issue, “Reflections from a Student”)

“Through the association between the Dugoni School of Dentistry and Peking Medical University, School of Stomatology, I became friends with Dean Li,” said Wong. “The beauty of his microscopic photography of the cells of the oral tissues truly exemplifies the ‘art’ of dentistry. We are very glad that he accepted our invitation to exhibit his beautiful photographs.”

Dean Nader Nadershahi ’94 and Wong were on hand to welcome attendees and visitors from the community to the art exhibit. Special guests included Ren Faqiang, Chinese Deputy Consul General to San Francisco, who also gave remarks.

[pullquote]In fact, every cell has a story to tell, every molecule works a miracle. They are themselves very artistic and have waited thousands of years to be explored and to be appreciated.
— Dr. Tie Jun Li[/pullquote]

“It was an honor for the Arthur Dugoni School of Dentistry family to welcome our colleagues from China and share this special event,” said Dean Nadershahi. “The Dugoni School’s Global Initiatives program seeks to pool intellectual resources and the collective wisdom of partner dental schools and educators from across the globe. Our long-standing partnership with Peking Medical University, School of Stomatology is one example of how we build bridges with others.”

Established in 2012, the student exchange program between the two schools is designed to give Dugoni School students and their counterparts in China an opportunity to learn about dental education and culture in each other’s respective countries. Eight dental students from Peking Medical University finished a two-week exchange visit to the Dugoni School of Dentistry in August, as part of this partnership.

In fact, both Ly and Tsu travelled to China last year to participate in the student exchange program with the Peking Medical University and they met Dean Li, the artist, during their visit. “The humanism fostered from day one was really the epicenter of all this,” said Ly. “For us students, the exchange program in China provided an opportunity to bond with peers across cultures in search of broader perspectives.”

The goal of these exchange visits is to create opportunities to share knowledge and resources, and ultimately raise standards in dental education globally. In addition to its ties to Chinese dental schools, the Dugoni School of Dentistry continues to develop outreach, links and exchange programs with schools in Asia, the Caribbean, Oceania and the Middle East. The school also supports international dental mission trips to Fiji and Jamaica each year.

“More than ever in today’s increasingly global economy, institutions of higher education must prepare students to thrive in an international work force,” said University President Pamela Eibeck. “I applaud the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry and Peking Medical University School of Stomatology for facilitating many cross-cultural opportunities, including the Art of Dentistry event featuring the innovative and inspiring photography of Dr. Tie Jun Li.”

If you are interested in sponsoring a piece of Dr. Li’s artwork as a permanent showcase at the Dugoni School of Dentistry, please contact Anita Ayers, Dugoni Annual Fund manager, at 415.929.6402 or