Dentist on Display: Kelly Kimiko Leong, D14, DG16

Dentist on Display is a series created by Career Services spotlighting young Tufts Dental alumni doing extraordinary work around the globe.
Kelly Kimiko Leong

Kelly Kimiko Leong, D14, DG16, was faced with a challenging decision after completing three years of dental school. She had been selected to join the Medical Research Scholars Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The year-long research program would allow Leong to work on a comprehensive research project. However, it also meant that she would have to move to Bethesda, MD, delaying her graduation by one year.

“It’s really sad to leave all of your classmates,” she said. “I’m not coming from a really affluent background. I have student loans. It means another year of interest compounding on it and another year of not practicing.” Nevertheless, Leong jumped at the chance to work at the NIH. The decision ultimately cemented her passion for research and education, and led to her decision to become an endodontist.

Upon completing the fellowship, Leong returned to Tufts and graduated in 2014. She then made the decision to stay to complete an endodontics residency. Now, she’s back in her hometown of San Francisco, working full-time as an endodontist at Endodontic Arts of San Francisco. As for her delayed graduation, Leong doesn’t regret a thing.

“It worked out well for me. I wouldn’t have had all of the other opportunities post dental school if I hadn’t received the fellowship.” The opportunity was one of many that have allowed Leong to build a career combining her passions of serving patients, conducting research and teaching others.

A Passion for Research

In addition to practicing full-time in San Francisco, Leong still finds time to continue research. She works with Robert Amato, chair and postdoctoral program director of endodontics at Tufts Dental, on a research study about endodontics and cone beam computed tomography.

“There are a lot of opportunities,” she said. “I always try to make the time and go for it. I’ve always been passionate about making sure that the next generation has a good foundation. To be an educator, research is a big component of it.”

Leong began her research career while an undergraduate student at University of California, Berkeley. She took a part-time position at the billing office of the faculty group practice at the University of San Francisco School of Dentistry. After being asked if she was interested in research, she began assisting with a study on bio-materials for dental implants.

Her interest in research continued at Tufts Dental where she was one of five students selected in her class to receive the Dean’s Research Honors Scholarship. She also served as second author for a research study regarding periapical abscesses and hospitalizations. At the time, Leong was a second year dental student and the results of the study opened her eyes to access to care issues. “I hadn’t started treating my own patients yet, so that’s why the results were so surprising. I didn’t know how bad access to care was in certain areas.”

Leong stated that while abscesses can often be treated in the dental chair, lack of access forces patients to wait and ultimately need emergency room treatment for care. The research was later highlighted in multiple publications, including The New York Times and Reader’s Digest. The research revealed that hospitalizations from periapical abscesses increased by 41.4% from 2000 to 2008. Such research topics have provided a holistic understanding to the role of endodontics within dentistry.

“The problem isn’t starting when the tooth starts to hurt,” Leong stated. “That’s why it’s really important for all of us in the dental world to work together.”

Deciding to Specialize & Endodontics Residency

While completing her fellowship at NIH, Leong decided to apply to endodontics residencies, which she developed an interest in after working as a dental assistant to an endodontist. “I would see people come in pain and leave with a smile on their face,” she said. Even after various opportunities allowed her to explore the different areas of dentistry, endodontics was the only specialty that Leong ever truly considered. Laughing, she recounted, “I was actually so frustrated during fixed prosth [fabricating temp crowns] that I told Dr. Singh that I would specialize in anything other than prosth so I wouldn’t have to do them again.”

Leong chose to remain at Tufts, which she likens to a second home. “I could have gotten a similar experience somewhere else, but Tufts has something about it,” she said. “It prepares you for the next step.” During her residency, Leong was able to moonlight at multiple private practices to increase her speed and experience. She also serves as an assistant clinical professor at Tufts.

“Everything came together full-circle. I like being in the position to help dental professionals achieve their goals. I still keep in touch with the students that I taught during residency.”

Life in Practice

After graduating from her residency, Leong accepted a position at Endodontic Arts of San Francisco, allowing her to move back to her hometown. She and her supervisor there have a lot in common; they’re from the same neighborhood, attended the same high school, both did research at UCSF, and both attended dental school in Massachusetts. “I’ve been inadvertently following him for years,” she said.

As an endodontist, Leong sees patients who need root canals, retreatment or apicoectomies. “A lot of people who need root canals are in acute pain,” she said. “Doing root canals is such a special field because you’re always taking away something painful. You’re able to get people out of pain and not do any harm.”

Returning to San Francisco after being on the east coast for so long made building a referral base challenging. Leong relies on relationships with general dentists in order to receive patients. She stated the importance in maintaining relationships with general dentists and meeting new people to grow her network.

Leong recently took her oral board examination, the second of three stages in becoming Board Certified by the American Board of Endodontics. She said the Tufts endodontics residency stands out in the way it effectively prepares residents for success on the boards.

“If I don’t have boards, I can’t be a program director or a chair,” she said. “For me, research and teaching has been an integral part of my experience. As a specialist, I have to do my best so I have options open. You’re locked out if you’re not board certified.”

Next Steps

As Leong continues to settle into her role in San Francisco, she plans to continue to work on her research and to begin to look for teaching opportunities nearby. Last year, Leong presented a continuing education course at Yankee Dental to a 300-person audience on endodontics versus dental implants. In November, she is planning to present another continuing education course with her current supervisor and a periodontist about bioceramics in endodontics.

Ultimately, Leong advises current students to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. “Always keep building on experiences,” she said. “You never know what’s going to help you in the future and you don’t know who you’re going to meet.”

-Marguerite Moore

If you are interested in nominating a recent TUSDM alum, please contact Marguerite Moore, Assistant Director of Student Affairs and Career Services, at Visit the Dentist on Display archive.