Professor Dan Caplan, a 1988 graduate of the College of Dentistry and head of the college’s Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry from 2007- 2022, is named 2023 Educator of the Year. For Dan, who grew up in Iowa City in a family that valued education, the opportunity to shape future dentists and the school that teaches them has been a gratifying experience.
“Working at the College of Dentistry has been rewarding, and I’m honored to receive this award,” says Dan, who continues to help lead the D4 extramural program, teach clinical research methods, serve on multiple college and university committees, and support colleagues with their scientific research.
Dan didn’t think about dentistry as a career when he was growing up, but looking back, he realizes that research and teaching were part of his DNA. His father taught at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, his mother was a librarian at West High School in Iowa City, and his aunt was a middle and high school reading teacher.
After he graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Chemistry, Dan worked for two years in a research lab at Goodyear Tire headquarters in Akron, Ohio. During that time, he began to consider a switch to a healthcare profession. “With my chemistry and material sciences background, I thought dentistry might be interesting,” he recalls.
Dan returned to Iowa City to pursue his DDS at the University of Iowa and, after his graduation, participated in a one-year General Practice Residency at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis. He practiced dentistry in his hometown for three years and then, in 1992, entered the PhD program in Epidemiology with an emphasis on oral diseases at the University of North Carolina. He ended up spending 15 years on campus as a student and then a professor.
Epidemiology and clinical research appealed to Dan for many reasons, but he was especially curious about the long-term outcomes of teeth treated with root canal therapy. While in private practice, he had started tracking root canal therapy outcomes and realized “there wasn’t enough information to support patients’ decisions about undergoing root canal therapy. I wanted to provide some helpful information for them and their dentists.”
In 2007, when the College of Dentistry was looking for someone to take over leadership of the Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry, Dan seized the opportunity to return to the Midwest and his alma mater. He was confident about the move because he knew many of the department’s faculty from his student days and from attending national research meetings.
“Marsha Cunningham, Steve Levy, Jed Hand and Howard Cowen (’76 DDS, ’95 MS) all were in the department when I was a student in the mid-80s,” says Dan. “I remembered them well—the quality of their teaching and research, and the solid reputation of the department.”
During his tenure as department chair, Dan oversaw several strategic initiatives, including expanding the Geriatric and Special Needs Dentistry program and fostering the development of a new graduate certificate program in that area. He also worked with college leaders to make geriatric and special needs dentistry a required rotation for all dental students. Of his decision to step down as Chair, Dan says his original plan was to stay in the role for at most 10 years. After 15 years, he says it’s time to move on and embrace a new career phase. “Others should have the opportunity to take on leadership roles and develop new administrative skills,” he says. “It’s important to give others a chance.”
Dan’s dedication to excellence in dental education makes him an ideal recipient of the 2023 Educator of the Year award