Penn Dental Medicine Welcomes Its First Thouron Scholar

Katherine Unger Baillie | kbaillie@upenn.edu | 215-898-9194
Monday, December 1, 2014

By Madeleine Stone  @themadstone

For over 50 years, the Thouron Award program has created a unique exchange between graduates of the University of Pennsylvania and universities across the United Kingdom, helping to reinforce the “special relationship” of the United States and Britain. This year, the Thouron Scholars, a community of 700-plus whose disciplines range from geology to English literature, welcomed their very first dentist to the ranks.

Kevin WanXin Luan received his Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree from King’s College in London last spring. As one of this year’s Thouron Scholars, this fall Luan began a residency in periodontics, the branch of dentistry that focuses on treatment of the gums, connective tissues and bones surrounding teeth, along with a master’s of science in oral biology at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine.

Luan was born in China but grew up in London, where, from an early age, he was a devoted pianist and violinist. In high school he became interested in medicine, but was ultimately drawn to dentistry because of its hands-on nature.

“Dentistry is similar to medicine in many ways, but it offered me the opportunity to use the dexterity I had developed through so many years of music,” says Luan. “It felt like a better fit.”

Luan’s undergraduate program in dental surgery found him taking pre-dental classes his first two years and treating his very first patients at the precocious age of 20. Originally, he intended to pursue a career in cosmetic dentistry or orthodontics. But during his third year, a 10-day trip to Ghana as a volunteer with Global Dental Brigades, an organization that provides emergency dental care in poor, rural communities, dramatically shifted Luan’s interests.

“I saw patients with a variety of medical conditions — diabetes, HIV, jaundice — in dire need of surgical interventions,” Luan says. “This completely changed my career path. I realized that beyond the cosmetic aspects of dentistry, there’s a real need for dentists with surgical training and a more biological perspective.”

Toward the end of his third year, Luan received an award from the American Dental Society of London to visit Penn Dental Medicine for a weeklong exchange program. During this week, Luan spent time in the school’s specialty clinics, talking with faculty and shadowing residents. He fell in love with the campus environment, a stark contrast to his own college in the heart of downtown London.

“Having lived in a city most my life and then attending dental school in the center of London, I had never experienced a university campus,” says Luan. “I loved the faculty at Penn Dental, and the family-like environment, so when I learned about the Thouron scholarship, I knew right away this was what I wanted to do.”

The Thouron Award, founded by Sir John R.H. Thouron shortly after World War II, is a generous scholarship, supporting British and American exchange students by covering tuition fees and providing a stipend for up to two years. But it’s the sense of community that really sets this program apart. To this day, the founder’s grandchildren remain involved in the activities of the Thouron Scholars, and the program’s alumni come together for frequent reunions on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We got to meet the family during interviews,” Luan says. “They want to get a sense of who you are, not just in terms of academic credentials, but also as a person.”

The unique nature of this scholarship is reflected in the unconventional application process. During the interview weekend, each applicant had to lead a discussion on a subject of his or her choice. Luan chose for his topic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a satirical memoir by Amy Chua that chronicles the culture clash between Chinese and Western parenting styles felt by many first-generation immigrants.

“It was a little scary, because that book is pretty personal to me,” says Luan. “But it ended up being a lot of fun.”

Following his successful application and interviews, Luan was named one of this year’s six British Thouron Scholars by the selection committee, which is chaired by Penn Dental Medicine Dean Denis Kinane. (The U.S. fellows won’t be announced until January.)

At Penn, Luan is already treating patients and working long clinical hours to fulfill his residency training. Penn Dental Medicine’s specialty clinics are renowned for their state-of-the-art facilities, equipping dentists with the tools to deal with some of the toughest cases. In periodontics, these include gum diseases that can lead to bone loss as well as dental implants.

“Most of the patients I see have very severe oral problems,” Luan says. “Some have chronic, lifelong diseases. On the whole, the cases are much more extreme than what a typical dentist gets, which keeps the work challenging and interesting.”

Evening classes that count toward Luan’s master’s degree follow days spent treating patients. Luan will also complete a clinical research project in the Dental School and the Perelman School of Medicine to earn his master’s.

Rigorous as his schedule may be, Luan is still finding time for music, playing both violin and piano in the Penn Chamber Orchestra and making frequent trips to the Kimmel Center to see the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also hopes to become active in Penn’s Chinese Dental Association this year, which holds oral health clinics in Philadelphia’s Chinatown area.

And Thouron community has never left his side. This year’s cohort of Thouron Scholars are scattered across diverse disciplines, including history, bioethics and environmental science. But they’ve already formed a close bond, getting together often to try the many cuisines Philadelphia has to offer and taking weekend trips to tour other cities and universities.

Several members of the group also had the opportunity to meet President Obama at a campaign rally this past weekend.

“It was amazing to see the President and an honor to be in such close proximity,” says Luan. “I’ve never experienced anything like it before.”

For Luan, it’s too early to say where he’ll end up after his residency. But his time spent as a Thouron Scholar is sure to open many doors.

“When I first arrived, I was sure I’d want to head back to London to start a practice after residency,” says Luan. “But I’ve really loved it here so far, especially having the other Thourons, who are like an extended family. So, my plans may end up changing.”

Kevin WanXin Luan

Kevin WanXin Luan