Sitting down with Saif Matti on a Sunday morning at a local coffee shop it didn’t take long to understand why his fellow students elected him as the President of the Federation of Canadian Dentistry Student Associations (FCDSA)--the assembly of dentistry student associations at the 10 Canadian dental programs and the national voice for the country’s 2,000+ dentistry students. He's an excellent communicator who is intelligent, thoughtful, and committed. Add to that his upbeat optimism and you have all the characteristics that will make him an excellent dentist.
Stepping into the role of President of FCDSA during a pandemic was a challenge. As President, Saif’s first order of business was addressing a significant and sudden decrease in the pass rates for the National Dental Examining Board of Canada (NDEB) exams. “We were in the middle of a pandemic so it’s not surprising that some students were struggling. I met with students over Zoom and phone calls and heard them out. I wasn’t familiar with the exam at that time, but quickly made myself familiar with the exam and the situation in general. I then met with NDEB and we worked together to create resources and support systems for students, including setting up sample OSCE exams, virtual information sessions, and mock exams held at the universities.”
Saif is now in his fourth year as a dental student at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry (Western University) and was first appointed to the FCDSA Board of Directors in 2019. Saif was elected President of the Federation at the 2021 Annual General Meeting and currently serves as the Chairperson of the Dental Student Conference Committee and sits on all FCDSA committees and working groups. As President of FCDSA, Saif also sits on the CDSPI Advisory Panel whose members represent the demographics and diversity of dentists across the country and actively participate in setting priorities and direction for the organization.
“Basically, I attend a LOT of Zoom meetings,” he says. “A lot of those meetings are with students and I spend a lot of time listening to their concerns. And they have a lot to say!” On top of worries about how the ongoing pandemic is affecting their education and for some, the upcoming board exams, “students are great communicators, they’ll talk your ear off about their experiences at their own schools and they constantly give us feedback about what works and doesn’t at our own events. They are very creative and have a lot of wonderful ideas, especially regarding advocacy projects. They’re passionate and committed and I’m proud to be their voice through the FCDSA.”
The situation with COVID hasn’t been ideal when it comes to the clinical aspect of dental training. However, Saif was impressed with the way the universities have adapted to ensure students can continue their education. “At Western they converted faculty offices into dental operatories because our clinic was open-concept and this was the only way we could have continued doing the work we do. It was truly inspiring to see faculty sacrifice their own comfort to ensure patients receive the care they need, and students continue receiving an education. However, during the first couple of lockdowns, our clinics were closed. During these closures, all practical / hands-on work was on pause, but didactic lectures continued virtually. Fortunately, our school was able to adapt to the new regulations/policies and we were able to reopen, more prepared than ever. With all of the infection control we have in place our clinics are very safe.”
Saif’s parents came to Canada from Iraq while he was still very young, but their story is not unfamiliar. How they chose to raise their three rambunctious sons, is a testament to not just the success each has achieved but to the men they’ve become. “I’m not saying it was perfect by any stretch,” Saif cautions. “With three boys in the home we definitely had our moments, but my brothers are my closest friends.”
After graduating with a four-year Bachelor of Medical Sciences degree, Saif took two years off to save money and to seriously consider his next steps. Then he shadowed a local dentist for a few weeks and was hooked. Saif has lived in London, Ontario most of his life and wanted to stay close to home, so the choice of Schulich Dental School at Western was easy.
Every dentist remembers their own White Coat Ceremony; that moment when you don the white coat for the first time in a symbolic welcome to the profession. In 2018, Schulich organizers made a very special exception and allowed for Saif and his younger brother, Danny who was entering medical school to receive their coats at the same time. Saif still carries the picture of the two of them together on stage on his phone.
“Both Danny and I spend a lot of time assuring my youngest brother, Ryan who is still in high school but who I might add, is smarter than both of us, that he can do whatever he wants in his life—as long as he works hard.”
“So how proud are your parents?” Certainly not the first time he’s heard the question. He smiles. “You know, my brothers and I were never pressured to be professionals. Neither of my parents ever said, ‘be a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer’ or any other of the stereotypical success-type careers. In fact, the only thing I ever heard was ‘work hard at whatever you do…whether it was school, sports, or a part time job.’ That’s it, work hard.”
In 2021 the dental students at Western formed the Dental Entrepreneurship, Business and Innovation (DEBI) club—Saif was a co-founder and past Vice President but stepped away due to his commitment with FCDSA. DEBI’s mission is to provide dental students the business knowledge and dental industry insights they need to fill the gaps in the Canadian undergraduate dental experience and also help prepare them for their future careers.
This is a great example of students finding new ways to connect and create learning opportunities on a national level as some students continue to learn remotely through virtual webinars with clinic owners and other business experts. When asked what his philosophy about dentistry is, Saif said, “I like to think that a visit to the dentist is just that, a visit. I want my patients to feel comfortable and be able to trust me with their care. I work with patients in the clinic five days a week and those doctor/patient interactions are what I find so fulfilling. I don’t just complete a chart and send them on their way. I explain the options, the costs, and the procedure and I like to take the time to write everything down so a patient can remember everything we discussed and take the time to consider the course of treatment. I guess it goes to the adage, “you want to treat patients the way you’d like to be treated.”
Saif plans to spend another year studying as part of a one-year residency program in the United States before returning to Southwestern Ontario to join a practice and maybe one day start his own practice.