New dean’s experience, expectations to shape SOD's future
Published on Monday, July 12, 2021
By: Ruth Cummins, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Sreenivas Koka grew up in the United Kingdom, received his dental surgery and prosthodontics training at the University of Michigan, and taught the next generation of dentists in Nebraska, Minnesota and California.
He’s served as executive director of the Switzerland-based Foundation for Oral Rehabilitation, established his own dental practice in San Diego and founded a nonprofit that offers training and counseling to guide dentists in planning their careers.
But, Mississippi “is where I need to be,” said Koka, who joined the Medical Center family in April as dean of the School of Dentistry.
Koka is leading the state’s only dental school, which enrolls 160 dental and 40 dental hygiene students, all Mississippi residents, and has a faculty and staff numbering about 227. Its mission is compelling: to increase the training of dental health care professionals direly needed in a state that has about 43 practicing dentists per 100,000 population, and a total 1,271 practicing dentists throughout Mississippi, latest figures from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute show.
“You want to live a life where you serve other people, whether that’s on the education level, the research level, or the population level inside or outside the School of Dentistry,” Koka said. “This was an opportunity to do that.”
Koka’s area of specialty is prosthodontics, the branch of dentistry concerned with design, creation and fitting of artificial replacements for teeth and other parts of the mouth.
When he considered dentistry as his life’s work, Koka didn’t have to look far for role models. His family claims 15 dentists, spread over four generations.
“In the Indian tradition, the ultimate was to be a physician,” Koka said. “My father was a dentist, but he really wanted me to be a physician. My older sister is a dentist, but my second sister became a physician. That took the pressure off me.
“I liked seeing the work that my father and sister did. It seemed very appealing to me.”
In the United Kingdom, students go straight from high school to professional schools rather than an undergraduate program. Koka was accepted into the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry at age 19 and graduated with his doctor of dental surgery in 1989 at the age of 22.
“It wasn’t unusual at all for me, but people here found it unusual,” he said of his education track.
He completed his residency in prosthodontics at Michigan, finishing in 1991, then accepted a position at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Dentistry as an assistant professor in the Department of Adult Restorative Dentistry. He remained there until 2004, earning his Ph.D. in oral biology and serving as the Merritt C. Pederson Professor of Dentistry.
Koka’s work then took him to the Mayo Clinic as a senior associate consultant in prosthodontics in the Division of Prosthodontics of the Department of Dental Specialties and as associate professor of dentistry in Mayo’s School of Graduate Medicine. In 2007, he became a consultant and chair of the Department of Dental Specialties and continued in the School of Graduate Studies as a professor.
In 2013, Koka earned his executive Master of Business Administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He serves today as chair of the Sloan School of Management’s Alumni Board.
He served in 2013 as executive director of the Foundation for Oral Rehabilitation, a global nonprofit in Luzern/Zurich, Switzerland. It advocates science, education and humanity in oral rehabilitation. In 2014, he founded Koka Dental Clinic in San Diego.
In 2015, he founded the nonprofit Career Design in Dentistry, which offers training and counseling to guide dentists in planning their careers, growing their practices and developing their leadership and management skills, among other skills that can make or break a career.
In 2017, Koka became interim chair of restorative dentistry at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Dentistry, where he directed the preceptor program in restorative dentistry for non-U.S.-trained dentists. Since 2015, he has served as a clinical professor in the Department of Restorative Dentistry at Loma Linda, Calif., University School of Dentistry. He has been a lecturer since 2018 in the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Division of Advanced Prosthodontics and Hospital Dentistry.
His work now will focus in part on uniting faculty to give students their best educational experience. “How well do we all come together? How integrated are we? How focused on the patient are we? These are all growth areas for the school,” he said.
That includes making diversion and inclusion – in both students and faculty – a top priority. Koka has assembled a new team to take on that necessary challenge. Dr. Kristin Nalls, a second-level dean in Admissions and Students Affairs, is the new dean of Student Affairs and Inclusion. She will also lead a team to oversee the recruitment and admissions process: Dr. Bill Boteler, associate professor in Care Planning and Restorative Sciences; Dr. Yuanyuan Duan, associate professor in Biomedical Materials Science; and Dr. Alexa Lampkin, assistant professor in Care Planning and Restorative Sciences.
Dr. Scott Phillips, a second-level dean and professor in the school’s Department of Care Planning and Restorative Sciences, met virtually with Koka in the weeks before he began his new post.
“I got to know Sree during my time as interim dean,” Phillips said. “Since his arrival, he has been consistent in one vision to make the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry known for its great patient care.
“He has a ‘patient first’ philosophy and wants this to guide who we are. He has encouraged SOD leadership to not be hesitant to try new ideas as long as we focus on the goal and keep the patient first in our planning and decisions. “
Rising fourth-year dentistry student Catie Lee Bruni said Koka keeps her and the rest of the student body “at the top of his priorities.
“Dr. Koka cares deeply about the dental students’ schooling, well-being and future careers. If you come to him with a problem or idea, he will follow through to see a solution is met,” Bruni said.
“In my D4 year, I hope to learn from his experience and expertise, not only as a prosthodontist, but also as a leader in the dental community.”
Mississippi’s rural nature is ingrained in the education of its dental students. “We have in our fabric that we are training dentists who might be the only one for miles around,” Koka said. “We want to give them the experiences that will allow them to be more independent, and to do things that most dental schools don’t train their students to do.”
That’s made possible, Koka said, “by very dedicated faculty who teach more advanced skills. Not only are our patients going to get care, they’re going to get care at the highest level.”
Koka would like to shepherd growth in the school’s research arena, and “to have a clinical research program that looks at preventing disease. I’d like to work with our colleagues in population health and nursing to help communities of all types and sizes across the state, whether that’s with school programs or community based programs.
“That scenario is one that I feel is very important if the school is going to fulfill its mission of serving all of Mississippi.”
He sees areas of strength “at the individual personal level, and in the smaller units at the school. “There is tremendous quality here, but as the dean, you want to find ways to bring the separate areas of excellence together,” he said.
A fun fact about Koka: “I won the Nebraska Cornhusker State Games in badminton singles,” he said.
He and his wife Dot hope to get “a couple more miniature dachshunds” once they’re settled into the Jackson community. Dot’s two children and two grandchildren “are a very big part of my life,” he said.
Koka enjoys running, reading, playing table tennis and a little golf, and “following sports from my childhood – soccer and cricket.” And, he and Dot are exploring the metro area’s restaurants. “I could eat Redfish Anna just about every day,” he said.
That’s part of being where he wants to be.
“There’s a real synergy around the mission of the school,” Koka said. “If we can improve how we work together as a team, there’s no ceiling to what we can accomplish.”
“I am excited about some of our plans we have been working toward and look forward to being a part of making it happen under Sree’s leadership,” he said.