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Named Tasmania’s Young Achiever of the Year for his community volunteering work, Dr Gavin Quek says his experiences have taught him the value of service in becoming a better dentist. By John Burfitt
It doesn’t matter what issue he’s speaking about; there’s one word that conspicuously appears throughout a conversation with Tasmanian dentist Dr Gavin Quek. That word is ‘curiosity’.
Which is not too surprising, considering it’s been a sense of curiosity that has driven Dr Quek—recently named Tasmania’s Young Achiever of the Year—his whole life, and even led him to a career in dentistry.
Malaysian-born and Hobart-based, Dr Quek, age 25, admits it was curiosity that transformed the way he considered dentistry, right from the time he was a boy and dreaded visiting the dentist. “I was terrified of the dentist when I was a child, when I was told to sit in a chair, be quiet and they would stick equipment into my mouth without anyone ever telling me what was going on,” Dr Quek recalls.
“But one day out of that fear, I became really curious about what they were doing and why it was so important. Then my mother had a root canal treatment and was in agony, and that made me want to find out more about all of this, especially what dentists do that can improve people’s health and get them out of pain.”
That proved to be a turning point for Dr Quek and the beginning of his quest to learn more about dentistry. He remembers spending hours researching processes and procedures online—an activity that continued throughout his teen years. “I had so many questions, and the curiosity to find the answers kept me going the more I looked into dentistry. It’s still the way I work today.”
Dr Quek made headlines in April when, only two years after graduating from dental school, he was named Hobart’s Young Citizen of the Year and the Tasmania Premier’s Young Achiever of the Year, in recognition for his significant contribution to volunteering. He also received the Heather and Christopher Chong Community Service & Volunteering Award.
Dr Quek’s curiosity extends to all facets of his life. “Curiosity drives us to seek new knowledge, new experiences and new perspectives,” he says. Indeed, it even informs how he’s settled into Australian life since arriving from Johor Bahru in Malaysia in 2017 to study at the University of Adelaide.
It was in his third year of studies while working with lecturer Margie Steffens, the university’s director of the Community Outreach Dental Program, that his curiosity took a new turn as he began exploring oral health among disadvantaged communities, particularly the homeless.
As part of the university course, final year students volunteered three hours a week to provide dental treatment for the marginalised. Dr Quek became so concerned about the health of many of the people he was treating that he committed even more hours per week to volunteer with the dental program, and also started volunteering weekly at a local soup kitchen.
“I was stunned that oral health for marginalised people in our community is so significantly poorer compared to other people,” he says. “The people I worked with were mainly homeless, who can’t afford dental treatments, and some were not eligible for dental care under the government schemes.
“With some people, when they’re homeless and marginalised, there can be a lot of things going on at the same time and some really complex treatments were needed. With the guidance of our mentors, we were able to help many of them.”
But it was his additional volunteering work at the soup kitchen that had a really significant impact on the way he looked not only at his future career, but also the state of Australian society.
“It was so eye-opening to turn up to the shelter to serve meals and see how people were getting on,” he says. “What I always found amazing was these people would show up, tell us what they needed but also try to be positive about their lives. You quickly realise everyone is going through something difficult in their life and is doing their best to cope.”
What he’s learnt
Dr Quek says the volunteering experience proved invaluable in the way it informed and, in time, changed how he communicates with others, especially in a dental setting.
“I learned so much—gratitude, empathy, humanity and respect—from these real-life experiences, lessons far beyond drilling teeth in a simulation clinic,” he says, adding it also empowered him in the clinic after he graduated and began working professionally in 2022.
“Young dentists usually struggle with communication and patient management, but because I had so many hours volunteering in both the dental outreach program and with groups like the Red Cross, it just seemed a little easier as I had been exposed to a wide range of people,” he says.
“I feel lucky because I’ve learned how to communicate in an empathetic way, but also how to be efficient in providing dental care within the time and resources we have. So much of dentistry is communication and being comfortable with people, as well as being curious about what they are going through. With all that, you can determine the best way to interact.”
Dr Quek’s final year dental placement was in a clinic in Hobart. “I became so curious about this island state at the bottom of Australia and had to look it up as I didn’t know much,” he laughs.
But his time in Tasmania won him over so completely that he moved there in January 2022 and now works with the Kingston Beach Dental clinic four days a week and in public health with Oral Health Services Tasmania one day a week. “I love it here. It is such a beautiful place and just feels good to be here,” he enthuses.
In addition to settling into his new jobs, Dr Quek has also dedicated many hours to volunteering in his newly adopted Hobart community, notably with the Red Cross Bicultural Community Health Program, providing oral health education to refugees, and providing pro bono dental services through the Adopt-A-Patient and Rebuilding Smiles programs. The extent of his commitment to his newly adopted Hobart community was what won him the three aforesaid awards for outstanding service.
He also currently serves as the secretary of the Australian Dental Association Tasmania, is co-chair of the ADA’s Oral Health Promotion Committee, and works with the National Oral Health Working Group. He volunteers for the Australian Dental Health Foundation, and was recently elected to the board of that organisation. He admits he wants to be more involved with the ways oral health is managed, and believes a better approach is needed.
“I feel I have work to do in the advocacy for a better approach to oral health,” he says. “I just don’t get why you always hear people speaking about ‘oral health’ and ‘general health’ when they are actually the same thing. The mouth has been put into a place as a different organ for too long now and we are working to close that gap so that oral health is seen in wider terms.”
A few months ago, Dr Quek presented an online TEDx Hobart talk called How Curiosity Drives Contribution, in which he explained that through volunteering he “learned more about the value of service than any other thing I had done in my studies”. He intends to continue to actively promote the value of curiosity, not to mention volunteering, because of the impact it can have.
“I am still struck that all of this came about simply because I allowed myself to be curious and acted upon it,” he says. “I truly believe if you’re curious about life and prepared to make a commitment to that curiosity, you will get something meaningful out of it. By that, I’m not referring to awards or recognition, but meaningful in a way that you will feel very different about the life you are living.”