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College of Medicine and Dentistry The road to achievement

The road to achievement

Fri, 24 May 2019
Dr Neils Kirsten

James Cook University (JCU) dentistry graduate, Dr Niels Kirsten, is an unassuming trail-blazer with an “A” for tenacity.

In 2010, he became the first Aboriginal student to complete a JCU Bachelor of Nursing Science, via the University’s Indigenous Health Careers Access Pathway (IHCAP). But that was just the start.

He immediately embarked on a dentistry degree at JCU, graduating in 2015. This year, he took a further step, becoming the first Aboriginal dentistry graduate to complete a JCU postgraduate course (Diploma of Implantology).

Now working in a private dental practice in Charters Towers, Dr Kirsten is looking forward to packing away his text books, after more than a decade of solid study. However, he remains grateful to IHCAP for opening the door to academic achievement.

The program is designed to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student success in pursuing a health career, providing ongoing support to cope with the demands of university study.

“I didn’t get the grades at school to enter university,” Dr Kirsten said frankly. “The access program set me on the pathway to achieve. I still struggled academically for the first couple of years, but I received support and over time I kept pushing forward, developing my skills.

“By the time I hit dentistry, I was well equipped. I realised I could do it. And (senior lecturer) Felicity Croker was very helpful. She really looked out for me and the other Indigenous students, as well.”

His father, a dentist, and his brother, a doctor, also inspired him.

“My Dad is retired now, but I used to go and observe him a lot when he was practicing as a dentist,” Mr Kirsten recalled. “I really liked oral surgery, so that also drove me towards dentistry.

“Now my Dad is very proud that I’ve gone on to do my postgrad studies. He’s really happy that I'm following my interest in oral surgery. I have a two-year-old son, so he may be the next generation to enter dentistry. I’m already working on it,” he quipped.

The one-year Diploma of Implantology course has equipped the young dentist to provide new surgical options to patients who wish to replace lost teeth.

“One of the options is a titanium screw. It’s a bit like a titanium hip or knee replacement. They use the same sort of material, but for teeth,” he said enthusiastically.

“The titanium implant goes into the jaw and integrates with the bone. Then we can screw in an artificial tooth that usually mimics the functions and aesthetics of natural teeth. I plan to use it as an everyday skill in the dental practice.”

After gaining his degree in dentistry, Dr Kirsten initially worked in the public health system in Townsville and on Palm Island, but was quick to seize the opportunity to join a small private practice in Charters Towers, in December 2016.

The majority of his patients are farming families from rural and remote areas, as well as miners. He relishes the opportunity to nurture a rapport with multiple generations of family members.

“You get to know them on a personal level,” he said. “You don't just see one person. You see grandparents, mothers, fathers, children, grandchildren. It really makes you feel like a good family dentist.”

Dentistry has become a rewarding career on so many levels.

“When patients come in in pain and you can relieve them of pain,” Dr Kirsten observed. “When you start doing cosmetic work on patients who have self-esteem issues with smiling, it can really change their lives.

“Alongside that, there is the reward of working with a really good team, in a really happy work environment. That all makes it worthwhile.”