This report is about my internship at the Center for Dental Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh. I will describe why I went there, what I had to organize before as well as during my stay, what my everyday life was like, and what my project was about. I hope that this story will help others looking for interesting research and internship opportunities.

The Beginning

I am highly interested in applying Applied Computer Science to Dentistry. For this reason, I searched the Internet for opportunities in the US in February, 2010 and discovered the "Dental Informatics Online Community" (DIOC). This platform brought me in first contact with Dr. Heiko Spallek, who is Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the Center of Dental Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh.

When establishing this contact, I was currently writing my Bachelor Thesis in Applied Computer Science and preparing myself for the German Physikum (a mid exam of dental education). In the previous years, I had been working on several web- and two e-learning projects, too. I let Dr. Spallek know my background. He asked me if I was interested in an internship at the Center for Dental Informatics. When I affirmed my interest, he described his faculty's "Dental Informatics Research Program" and helped me with all issues of the application process.


I chose the four-weeks option, which is the shortest duration of attendance for a Dental Informatics Research Program. As I didn't wanted to pause a semester of my studies in Germany, this was the only option for me. In order to have the four weeks, I decided to go to Pittsburgh directly after completing the Physikum, i.e. mid September, 2010.

In April, 2010, Dr. Spallek gave me a list of projects I could work on. I chose an e-learning project, which is described in section Working on my Research Project. After this decision, I had to start with preparation. About two weeks per hour I spent reading background information such as papers, a textbook, watching video files, examining student surveys from the last year, and planning the things I wanted to do at Pittsburgh. I had several phone calls with Dr. Spallek in which we discussed how to proceed. When needed, he gave me the e-mail addresses of his colleagues and asked me to clarify the issues with them directly. Many times, I exchanged emails with Deborah Polk, who is a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, and who was teaching the course my e-learning course should support.

Besides introducing me to my project, Dr. Spallek also provided me with information about housing at Pittsburgh. In addition, he arranged contact to Mrs. Risa from the Office of International Services (OIS) who helped me with information and documents for my visa. When I had any questions regarding my project or my stay, I was free to ask him.

Arrival at Pittsburgh

I arrived on a Saturday, which allowed me to have the Sunday for handling the jet lag. On Monday, my work at the Center for Dental Informatics began. My office had already been equipped, so at my arrival I was almost ready.

The first morning, I was introduced to Dr. Spallek's colleagues. There were some persons I had exchanged emails with during the planning phase, thus it was quite exciting to meet them for a first time. I also got access to a kitchen nearby where I could make coffee (I had to buy a mug on my own), tea, or use the microwave and the fridge. This was very convenient!

During my stay, I also had to visit the Office of International Services (OIS) to affirm my arrival, and to provide them information such as my insurance plans, and my address at Pittsburgh. The OIS also had a welcome event. Both, the "check in" and the welcome event, are obligatory.

Working on my Research Project

My project was to investigate if an e-learning module provides a better preparation for students encountering Standardized Patients for the first time than preparation by reading text documents does. In the previous year, students had been using a textbook and handouts for preparation. They did not feel well prepared.

My project included several things: At first, I had to introduce myself in the given materials. Then, I had to re-structure the given contents and make them suitable for e-learning. Before I was ready to build the e-learning modules, I also had to plan some short videos, direct their recording, and cut them afterwards. Video-taping and building the e-learning modules were the two main tasks during my stay. In order to measure the contribution of e-learning potential such as short videos, quizzes, and photos, Deborah Polk and I also created a text version of the e-learning modules. Finally, we had to create a student survey in order to make the results measurable.

Software assisting my work included Adobe Premiere for video editing, Adobe Captivate to build the e-learning modules, and Adobe Photoshop to create illustrations and to finish the photos.

I was always quite free in planning and organizing my project; only two milestones had been set by Dr. Spallek. When I got the impression that meetings with collaborators were needed, I had to organize them on my own. When I wanted someone to give me feedback, I had to ask for this, too. In the beginning, this was a little confusing, because I was not used to having so much responsibility and freedom in designing a project. However, I quickly got used to this way of working and enjoyed it a lot.

A workday at Pittsburgh

In the morning, I went swimming, and afterwards, I had a little breakfast in my office. At eight o' clock, I started working.

At noon, I had several options for lunch. The cafeteria of the medical faculty was not bad and quite cheap (less than five dollar for the meal and a drink). Around the corner, there were several more expensive little restaurants. Those restaurants had food of different countries, e.g. Spain, Italy, or India, and others had the typical American fast food. I would recommend other interns to try out all the different options, because they all reflect nice aspects of American life.

After work, I usually went home. Only few times, I went to the city center for a cultural event or to a party. This was because my accommodations were out of town, and I had no options to go home by public transportation after 7 or 8 pm. On the weekends, I toured Pittsburgh, and one time, I went to New York. If one has not seen this fascinating city before, I would recommend to use this.

After my stay

As Dr. Spallek, some members of his team, and I want to write a paper about the project, I still have to work on this. Probably we will finish the project in March, 2010. Thus, the research project is going to take me at least one year.

My impression

I really enjoyed my stay at the Center for Dental Informatics. I had a lot of freedom in organizing and forming the e-learning modules, and as these modules were used by students directly after my stay, my project included a lot of responsibility, too.

I got to know that the team I worked with was very competent, open-minded, and friendly. Especially Dr. Spallek had a great organization, which made it possible to manage video taping and building the e-learning modules only in one month. Many of the people I spoke with were interested in improving dental education and in applying new technologies of the Internet to this issue. In our conversations, I collected new impressions how university education may be improved in future. Most of the time my colleagues were busy with other projects during my stay, thus I always had to explain my concerns when I had a question. In general, each of them took the time I needed, thus communication was not a problem.

The experiences I collected at Pittsburgh are very useful for my studies at Germany, too. Recently, I started to build short videos and eventually e-learning modules depicting how to perform the different dental treatments. I am very thankful for this great stay at Pittsburgh and would recommend it to anyone who has knowledge in Informatics, and Dentistry, too.

Kathrin Becker, 1st January 2011