Sinking Her Teeth Into Her Research

With the help of Albright College's 3D printer, aspiring dentist Milca Mendez-Ceballos '15 is spending the summer exploring how 3D printing can be used in dentistry.

By Hilary Bentman


Milca Mendez-Ceballos '15 conducted an ACRE on how 3D printing can be used in dentistry.

Milca Mendez-Ceballos '15 pops the lid on the small black box, reaches her hand inside, and pulls out an anatomically correct central incisor tooth, propped up by a small, three-legged stand. Next, she extracts a set of top teeth – her teeth, to be precise.

These are not her dentures; Mendez-Ceballos has a fully-intact, all-natural smile. And this isn't some kind of macabre Halloween prank. Instead, these teeth are replicas, printed on Albright College's three-dimensional printer and part of Mendez-Ceballos' summer research project.

Working with assistant professor of digital media Jocelyn Kolb (Albright's resident 3D printing expert), Mendez-Ceballos is doing an Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE) project that explores how 3D printing can be used in dentistry, comparing it to the more traditional techniques for making impressions or fitting patients with dental or orthodontic apparatuses.

For Mendez-Ceballos, an aspiring dentist, it's a project she can really sink her teeth in to – literally.

"It's been great, and I've learned a lot about 3D printing in any field, especially in dentistry," said the biology/Spanish major on the pre-dental track.

Since 3D printing is becoming more common in dentistry, the summer ACRE is providing Mendez-Ceballos with foundational, hands-on knowledge that should serve her well in dental school and beyond.

"It gives me a better chance to come up with something new and innovative," said Mendez-Ceballos, who is blogging about her experience.

The ACRE is actually a synthesis of science and art. Mendez-Ceballos knew nothing about 3D printing prior to starting. But after taking a computer graphics course with Kolb, the instructor suggested she explore the intersections of these fields.


A collection of the dental models used by Mendez-Ceballos while researching her ACRE.

"She really is an amazing student, always with a smile on her face," said Kolb. "She has a great attitude and a great work ethic."

Three-dimensional printing involves using CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) technology. Computer images are relayed to the printer, which, layer-by-layer, reproduces the image using a type of resin. CAD/CAM has become so popular in dentistry that some dental schools suggest students take design and 3D imaging courses, said Mendez-Ceballos.

Albright's 3D printer is housed in Alumni Hall and is about the size of a large, stainless steel backyard grill. The printer is used by students and faculty from across the disciplines, and has spit out everything from chess pieces to jewelry. Some reproductions can take hours to complete.

Jewelry made with a 3D printer is Kolb's specialty, and Mendez-Ceballos is creating her own dental-inspired bling to wear to her dental school interviews. She is designing circular earrings that incorporate those top teeth of hers.

Three-dimensional printing can be faster, more accurate and less painful than traditional dentistry techniques, especially in the fields of orthodontics and restorative dentistry.

In the past, for instance, an orthodontist would make an impression for a patient using a gelatinous, cake batter-type substance called alginate. The impression would be plastered, creating the cast to fit the patient with braces or other dental equipment. The orthodontist would be careful not to drop the impression as it could easily shatter.

With 3D printing, practitioners can simply scan a person's mouth, send the schematics to a computer and, with a few adjustments, print a 3D version.


A computer image of the 3D-printed earring Mendez-Ceballos designed using impressions of her top teeth.

Orthodontists can then use the 3D version to more easily apply braces via indirect bonding. Instead of propping open a patient's mouth for hours to place brackets on one tooth at a time, indirect bonding allows the orthodontist to position the braces on the 3D model, create a custom tray, and transfer all the braces to the patient's teeth in one fell swoop.

Despite its obvious advantages, a major reason 3D printing is not more pervasive is the cost. As part of her ACRE, Mendez-Ceballos has been analyzing the cost differences between the newer and more traditional methods. A 3D printer, depending on size, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, plus the cost of re-stocking the resin, she said.

Some smaller dental practices are opting to farm out their work to 3D printing laboratories, such as one Mendez-Ceballos visited in New Jersey as part of her research.

Mendez-Ceballos has been learning about other dentistry techniques that employ CAD/CAM technology. She has been shadowing dentist and Albright alumnus Brian Schwab '02, who uses a CEREC (Chairside Economical Restoration of Esthetic Ceramics) machine in his practice in Blandon, Pa.

Unlike a 3D printer, which is additive manufacturing (producing something from nothing), the CEREC is subtractive. Used for restorative items like crowns, the dentist scans a patient's mouth and sends the data to the device. The CEREC then mills the crown from a block of porcelain, while the patient waits.

"I am curious to see how long it will take to transition to all 3D," said Mendez-Ceballos.

The daughter of a dentist, Mendez-Ceballos came to the conclusion that this was her calling all on her own. Post-Albright, she hopes to attend dental school. While conducting her ACRE, Mendez-Ceballos is taking the dental admission test and preparing for dental school interviews.

Over the January Interim term between the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters, Mendez-Ceballos will spend 10 days in Nicaragua with Vida Volunteer, an organization that provides medical services to underserved communities.

Mendez-Ceballos' trip will set up temporary dental clinics in Nicaragua, where dental practitioners and dental students will treat locals, many of whom rarely, if ever, receive dental treatment.

"It's a great way to help out," said Mendez-Ceballos, flashing a smile worthy of a future dentist.


To read more about Mendez-Ceballos' ACRE project:




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