Columbia University Brings Data Science to Dental School

Dentistry Today


Exponential increases in computing power and access to vast reserves of information are revolutionizing how academics and industry alike perform research, and these changes are coming to dentistry as well. The Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM) expects data analysis to help dentists make clinical decisions, such as whether or not to perform a costly and painful surgery, based on thousands of data points that can help predict and improve outcomes.

To prepare its students to lead this changing field, the school will roll out a new course that incorporates data science into its curriculum. Designed in collaboration with Columbia’s Data Science Institute, Department of Biomedical Informatics, and Mailman School of Public Health, CDM’s new course, open to predoctoral and postdoctoral students, is expected to start next spring. Over the next 3 years, CDM and its collaborators will build on the offering.

“We are leveraging the university’s strengths within precision medicine and want to train dentists who will help develop personalized treatment based on an individual’s characteristics,” said Joseph Finkelstein, MD, PhD, associate professor of dental bioinformatics and co-creator of the new course. “Data science has a crucial role in that.”

Finkelstein, who also directs the Center for Bioinformatics and Data Analytics in Oral Health, is collaborating closely with Letty Moss-Salentijin, DDS, PhD, professor of dental medicine and vice dean of curriculum innovation, on course development, along with fellow faculty partners across Columbia. He will co-teach the new course with faculty from CDM, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the Department of Biomedical Informatics. 

CDM says that its formal foray into a data science curriculum will support efforts to continuously evaluate and enhance care while reducing costs.

“Like all healthcare professionals, dentists are in constant need of better decision-making support and refined approaches to providing quality care,” said Finkelstein. “We need to train our students to understand the underpinnings of data science as it relates to dentistry and engage them in data science from the very beginning of their studies.”

“There are multiple areas where we collect a lot of data and don’t do anything with it. Developing the tools to examine that data will help our students establish themselves as leaders in the field,” said Moss-Salentijin.

Interested in exploring data science as it relates to dentistry, second-year CDM student Seth Levitin agreed that in order to improve patient care, “data scientists are needed to navigate the masses of data to determine how best to go about our work,” he said. “Building a foundation in data science now will enable students to contribute to the continuing evolution of the field.”

The course will be partly taught online and in small groups. Major topics related to data generation, storage, visualization, and data analysis will be covered. The first part of the course typically will be offered in the spring semester and will be followed in the summer by the second part aimed at providing case-based hands-on skills in conducting independent data science projects. In its first year, CDM will offer the course to up to 15 students as an elective. Later, it will be formally incorporated into the dental school’s curriculum.

“Dental students will have the rare opportunity to learn skills usually absent from even the best dental education,” said Levitin.

The course will be designed to allow students to better understand data science and dentistry, arming them with skills such as how to effectively identify sources for data science projects in oral health, select appropriate standards for data representation of dental care delivery, employ interactive tools for big data visualization, and more. It also promises to give students a leg up in an already burgeoning and important field.

“The use of big data collections really allows us to improve on what we are doing,” said Moss-Salentijin. “If you don’t do it, you don’t move forward.” 

Related Articles

Evidence-Based Dentistry Lagging in Dental Schools

Living Bone Grown for Facial Reconstruction

Dental Grads Encouraged to Consider Associate Positions