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Published in CenterView on May 26, 2014
Kefei Duan
Kefei Duan

Student Feature: Kefei Duan

By Bruce Coleman

While pursuing the arts, Kefei Duan landed in computer science, but discovered her true calling in dentistry.

Growing up as the only child of a diplomat and a journalist from Kunming, China – a city of 4 million – Duan was exposed to a variety of cultures. She shared a love of music with her father, who encouraged her creative and academic interests.

An accomplished painter, pianist and model, Duan was volunteering at an art festival when she and her father met Dr. Collin Harbinson, who had been hired to become dean of the art school at Belhaven University in Jackson. Her parents supported her decision to move to Jackson and study art at the tender age of 18.

“It was very hard, especially when you don’t speak the language,” said Duan, who received her D.M.D. from the School of Dentistry May 23. “But I remember my mom recently told me that this was the best decision she ever made – to send me to a completely different country.

“It helped me become more independent and very confident.”

After a year of studying art, Duan recognized that turning her avocation into a vocation might take too much of a toll on her creativity. She had always been good with her hands, so she decided to pursue a career in computer science.

“If you’re good with your hands, why not computer science? You use a keyboard, and I had played the piano,” Duan joked. “When you have to make a living, you can no longer use art to inspire you.”

It seemed like a great fit. While earning her computer science degree, she did an internship at the Department of Finance and Administration, which turned into a full-time job upon graduation in 2003. For seven years, Duan served as a Programming Analyst 2, but the siren song of art kept beckoning more and more loudly until the day a friend asked for her assistance.

While helping him prepare for his dental licensing exam, Duan had an epiphany: dentistry could provide the perfect amalgam of vocation and art.

“I realized this is my calling – this is my form of art,” she said. “Computers are good, but I’m more of a personable person – I like talking to and interacting with people. Dentistry is more fun to me.”

So like every other of her interests, Duan threw herself into her work. She entered the Professional Portal Track Program for Dentistry at UMMC and earned her master’s degree in 2010. Then she set out to make a difference in the School of Dentistry.

She served as treasurer of the Student National Dental Association, vice president of the UMMC Multicultural Student Health Care Association and co-chair of the School of Dentistry’s Diversity Committee, and was selected as a finalist for the Academy of Dentistry’s International Terry Tanaka Student Humanitarian Award.

Duan also participated in service projects with the Jackson Free Clinic, Mission First, Give Kids a Smile and the Little Light House, and went on several mission trips and helped out at numerous health fairs. All the while, she worked part-time in UMMC’s Rowland Medical Library and led a yoga class at the Norman C. Nelson Student Union.  

“Community service is a large part of my life,” Duan said. “I participate in every opportunity I have. I talk to people, especially the youth, and tell them why dental hygiene and oral health are important.

“A lot of people do not have basic dental knowledge. I feel like a missionary spreading the word to the world.”

Her efforts have endeared her to the School of Dentistry faculty.   

“She is a caring and compassionate person who has given back to the community,” said Dr. Wilhelmina O’Reilly, professor of pediatric dentistry and community oral health and assistant dean for admissions and student affairs. “Kefei goes above and beyond and is always willing to volunteer and to help others.

“She has a soft and kind demeanor which patients love.”

That demeanor can come in handy, especially in a profession not always treasured by the general public for its gentle touch.

“For me, life has to be fun, and you have to make the best of it,” Duan said. “When you see a patient walk in (to the dental office) crying, and then you talk with them, you treat them, and they walk out smiling, that’s when you know you’ve made a difference.”

Her desire to make a difference is reflected in her overarching career goal to one day build a dental partnership between Asian countries, such as China or India, and the United States. By establishing a “dental headquarters” in the U.S. and satellite provider-dental centers in other countries, Duan said she could facilitate clinical and scholarly exchange.  

“By bringing clinicians from the U.S. to Asian countries and bringing some clinicians here from other countries to learn what we have, you could try to build a bridge between cultures,” she said. “The whole purpose is to spread dental hygiene knowledge to others. It’s important to help people understand the importance of prevention to avoid dental disease.”   

Although her journey to dentistry may have taken a circuitous route, Duan treasures the lessons she has been taught along the way.

“Anything you learn in life will be rewarded,” she said. “I have realized that whatever you learn in your life can be of good use, and I’m glad I’ve learned that.”

She credits the relationships she has built during her formal education for helping inspire her to achieve greatness in the profession.

“My amazing family and friends are my world,” Duan said. “The UMMC PPT program, multicultural affairs division, faculty and staff of the School of Dentistry, my colleagues at the Rowland Medical Library, my patients and my lovely yoga class have all made my journey here a real pleasure.”    

Her zeal for variety is shaping her postgraduate training: at the end of June, she will begin a general practice residency at the Detroit V.A.

“I’ve been there a few times,” she said. “I’m excited to open a new chapter of my life, but Mississippi is a place I call home. Detroit is a big city.”

You can be pretty sure Duan will be able to adjust.