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Cheers to an Exam-Free Year

October 2, 2017

profile5am: *beep beep beep* Time to get up and out of bed. Just like any other weekday since 2006, I start my day off at the gym. This routine helps jumpstart my brain, activate my muscles and stretch my joints in preparation for the busy day ahead. One hour later, I head back home and have breakfast while watching last night’s episodes of the Late Show and the Daily Show. After getting a few good laughs in without aspirating my food, I clean up, pack my book bag and head out.  The walk from my apartment unit to the research laboratory only takes me five minutes. Living on the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is great because I rarely have to worry about arriving late to work.

So, why am I more than 500 miles away from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry? Only a couple months ago, I had started my fourth year in dental school.  I should be in Ann Arbor preparing for dental boards and treating patients in the student clinic.

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Well, in my case, the story is a bit different. After having completed three years of dental school, I decided to embark on a yearlong research fellowship at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  Since my first year in dental school, I had joined a research lab and developed a passion for science and discovery. Since then, my educational journey has led me to the nation’s premier biomedical research institute.

Although the decision to accept this fellowship would delay my graduation, I thought to myself: “Why not? I get a year off from school!”  Honestly, I did not fully appreciate my time away from dental school until I started the first week of my fellowship. There was no stress about fulfilling clinical requirements, earning good grades, studying for exams, and completing assignments! Plus, I now have a FULL year to focus all my energy and time towards research… that’s it. And, I absolutely loved everything about it. Yea, it sounds nerdy, I know.

So what is this all about? And what is it like?

In the program, I join fifty-one other medical and dental students from schools across the US, who are in the midst of their training as well. All of us are distributed across the NIH campus at different institutions with renowned clinician scientist mentor(s) in our field of interest. In addition to performing research at our respective institutes, our class cohort would gather as a group for lectures, journal club meetings and teaching rounds that are scheduled into our program curriculum throughout the year.  In addition, outside of work, we always find time to go out to downtown Bethesda, Virginia, or Washington D.C. for social gatherings and events such as comedy shows, food festivals, and sports games. Not to mention, if you love food as much as I do, the District of Columbia is brimming with bars, restaurants, coffee shops that are perfect for breakfast, brunch, lunch, happy hour, and dinner.

Being a foodie, I made sure to try out as many restaurants, bars, and popular pop-up spots throughout the year. Some of my favorite places to dine and have a good time are located in the DMV (D.C./Maryland/Virginia). For example, when I am craving homie authentic Vietnamese food, I make a drive out to Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Being only a short drive away from Bethesda, MD, Falls Church, VA is a city that has a dense Vietnamese population and Eden Center is the epicenter of Vietnamese bakeries, supermarkets, café shops, hair salons, and restaurants. I always leave Eden Center with a belly full of delicious Pho, Bun Bo Hue, or Com Tam Suong Nuon.

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On the other hand, when happy hour comes to mind, Washington D.C. is the place to be. There are endless bars and restaurants with great deals on food and drinks to quench your thirst, fill your tummy, and unwind your mind. Some of my favorite places include: Barmini by Jose Andres, Garden District, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, The Pig, Service Bar D.C., and so much more.

My year on the east coast has passed by in a blink of an eye and I have learned a tremendous amount of information, made new friends, and gained great mentors. I loved the research that I had performed in the lab, which included basic benchtop experiments as well as macro- and microsurgery on small live animals.  The experiences have been invaluable.

Although not many dental students are aware of this type of research opportunity, I would highly recommend and encourage those who are interested in research and academia to pursue and inquire about it. The dental profession and its respective specialty fields depend on evidence-based research for its academic preservation and high regard in the public and professional communities. And with that, we need future academic leaders advocating for the advancement of dental medicine through research and discovery.

All in all, it has been an unforgettable year with friends, food, and fun.


John M. Le
University of Michigan School of Dentistry (UMSoD) Class of 2018
National Institutes of Health Medical Research Scholars Program (NIH MRSP) Class of 2017. Read more about his year at NIH here:

You can find me on

IG: lifteatdrinkwork


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