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Written By

Andrew Cramb


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

3 May 2024

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Striking a balance

A Bachelor of Dental Surgery is a comprehensive and time-intensive degree that produces work-ready and sought-after graduates. Studying at JCU Cairns, Joel Sutherland embraces his downtime in the Tropics with an action-packed approach to relaxation.

Joel knows the rainforest uphill from JCU Cairns, Nguma-bada campus, Smithfield even better than he knows the campus itself. Born and raised in the tropical city, Joel spent much of his childhood on the local mountain bike trails. It's a pastime that has taken him to elite-level competitions where he has faced off against some of the best riders in Australia and from around the world.

This May, Cairns will once again play host to this elite group during Crankworx 2024, the world’s largest mountain bike festival. In 2023, Joel represented the Far North with pride and placed fifth in the Men’s RockShox Downhill, a mountain bike race where riders navigate from the top to the bottom of the hill.

As he also puts in extensive hours training at JCU's Cairns Dental Clinic, Joel and his fellow Bachelor of Dental Surgery students are kept extremely busy. He has become adept at navigating competing demands to meet his study and athletic goals.

“It has been a challenge, but I’ve gotten quite good at balancing riding and dentistry these days!" Joel says. "I’ve tried to make mountain biking my downtime from uni so that I can keep enjoying it. That’s the motivation to keep going. It’s the same for dentistry. You have to enjoy it and I really do, which is the biggest factor that helps me juggle both.”

Exterior shot of the dental clinic at JCU Cairns campus.
Joel Sutherland in a dental surgery wearing blue scrubs.
Left: JCU Cairns, Nguma-bada campus, Smithfield. Right: Joel Sutherland (photograph supplied).

Racing ahead in the Tropics

Adrenaline seeking is in Joel's blood. His father is a mountain-biking enthusiast who encouraged his sons, Joel and fellow JCU Dentistry student Jordan, into the sport from an early age. Joel says his love for mountain biking came naturally through the Cairns landscape.

“I think in Cairns it's hard not to get into mountain biking, given the scenic trails around us. We've got two World Heritage-listed areas meeting — the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest — so it's an adventure destination,” Joel says.

“The feeling I get out on a ride is hard to beat. It's good to have a break from my dentistry studies, as much as I love it. You get to be up in the fresh air in the mountain tracks behind the university; it’s my downtime and it’s a great way to clear your head!”

Joel participated in the 2023 Crankworx event at the Smithfield Mountain Bike trails. The iconic rainforest trail network is the oldest mountain bike park in the country. It is the crucible of Australia's top-level downhill racing scene, hosting the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup way back in 1995, then again in 2014 and 2016.

“I have done a lot of races in my time. But for me, I always come back to the races here in Cairns," Joel says. "I think for any professional athlete, a victory at home means the most. We have had a variety of championships here in Cairns and the community really get around it.

“Since early 2020, I’ve competed in every national championship for the downhill. On top of the yearly championship, there is also the National Cup Series, which is Australia-wide. Competing in Crankworx 2022 was my first international competition and I was pumped to be back again," he says.

“It was an incredible event to be a part of and I was very grateful to experience it with my family, friends and team. I am very proud of the result and have already started preparing for the next race season” Joel says.

Dentistry a Far-North family affair

As the son of a Cairns-based dentist, Joel grew up seeing the significant role of dentists in the local community. This inspiration, and his desire to help make a difference, led him to a Bachelor of Dental Surgery at JCU.

“A lot of my patients ask me why I chose to study dentistry. It’s tricky to answer without it sounding like a complete cliché, but I just really wanted to help people. Growing up I saw the difference my dad was making as a dentist, so I think that is where the interest has come from,” Joel says.

Improving access to dentists is an increasing priority for rural and remote communities across Australia. According to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council 2015 report, people living in regional and remote areas of Australia have poorer oral health than those living in major cities. Oral health status generally declines as remoteness increases. Not only do people living in rural areas have access to fewer dental practitioners, but longer travel times and limited travel options also exacerbate the problem. Joel says he became aware of this divide early on.

“I spent my early years in Kuranda and saw a bit of a health disparity there. That was my first exposure to the profession of dentistry and that early impression played a part,” Joel says.

Ready for rural dentistry

Now approaching the final subjects in his dentistry degree, Joel is as passionate as ever about rural oral health. Along with his fellow students, Joel has received extensive clinical training at the JCU Cairns Dental Clinic on campus. Here, he can hone both his clinical skills and engage in effective patient communication.

“I have loved all my dentistry experiences. You never really know what you're going to get when it comes to dentistry, so every single day is different; different patients have different treatments, and you are always thinking on your feet. I just love the diversity.

“There’s been nothing but positive feedback for me through the clinic. I think patients are always overwhelmed by the service that is here. Thanks to our supervisors and clinicians, we can see a large number of patients and provide a range of services,” Joel says.

This year, Joel and fellow final-year students will embark on their capstone rural placements. The capstone experience involves two 18-week rural placements at sites across Queensland, Northern Territory and Tasmania. It brings together everything students have learned to date and prepares them to graduate as dental professionals.

Joel is keeping his options open for placement, but already has his eyes set on what he’ll be doing after he graduates.

“The plan after graduation is to stay in Cairns and work for my dad’s practice. It's important after graduation to get a mentor to show you the ropes, whether that is someone close to you or even a stranger," Joel says. "I know a lot of older dentists are happy to mentor younger ones in their practices.”

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