A slick game of back and forth, warring forces, combating ruthless invaders — one might listen to Calvin Yeager, Ph.D., talk about infectious diseases and his voracious thirst for researching therapeutics to fight them and think he was talking tactics for video games.
Dr. Yeager, a first-year dental student, is the 2023 VCU Dental Care/Abrahamian Superstar Scholarship recipient, named for Richard Abrahamian, D.D.S., Class of 1968, whose generosity underscored his love for his alma mater.
VCU is the only dental school in Virginia. It receives more than 2,000 applications annually for fewer than 100 seats.
The scholarship was created in 2022 and provides up to $50,000 a year for four years. Recipients are notified prior to beginning dental school. Historically, financial assistance has only been available to VCU dental students after they are enrolled.
That Dr. Yeager is this year’s recipient is just another twist in a lifelong journey that has taken more spins than a dentist’s drill.
Wearing scrubs and perched on a stool inside a lab at the VCU School of Dentistry’s Philips Institute for Oral Health Research, Dr. Yeager acknowledged that he is not a traditional dental student.
He’s 30. He already earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. He’s working his way through the rigors of dental school while simultaneously stoking his passion for research within the Philips Institute, which focuses on finding treatments for head and neck cancer.
My absolute priority in dental school is to be a good clinician. But at the same time there are all these incredible scientists here at the Philips Institute doing impressive things, and I get to contribute with them.
Calvin Yeager, Ph.D., 2023 VCU Dental Care/Abrahamian Superstar Scholarship recipient
A bit unusual, Dr. Yeager admits with a grin. But little about his story is typical.
Born in Colorado to “second-generation hippies,” Dr. Yeager grew up on the beaches of a northern California coastal community that fed his scientific curiosity.
His life was anything but ordinary. He recalled that his parents couldn’t find affordable housing. The then family of three (his sister, Rose, would arrive eight years later) and their two dogs lived in their van for some time. Money was scarce.
Despite their circumstances, Dr. Yeager said he thrived as a child. He spent his days on sandy Pacific Coast beaches looking for giant, pink gumboot chiton or wandering among giant redwoods search for a pacific giant salamander. Science fascinated him, and he read everything he could find about the natural world.
His primary years in a small charter school with a total of about 100 students fed but didn’t quite quench his thirst for science education. By the time he graduated from high school — valedictorian in a graduating class of only five seniors — he was ready for more.
Dr. Yeager attended Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, diving into science classes he’d largely never had, like biology and chemistry.
It was a wake-up call.
“I failed every exam — every one of them,” he said emphatically about those first semester tests. He estimates he was about eight years behind his peers. Rather than give up, he went back to the basics.
“I learned how to study and studied how to learn,” he said, but maybe more importantly, he learned how to cultivate relationships with professors and researchers who opened a world of possibilities.
Dr. Yeager found himself drawn to researching infectious diseases.
“Viruses make these little proteins that do things in the body, and the body responds, and it becomes this slick game of back and forth,” he said. “I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”
After graduating Hartwick, he moved on to Penn State and later transferred to UNC Chapel Hill to earn his doctorate. He followed an advisor who was studying therapeutics to combat recent cases of acute flaccid paralysis in children. In short, making antiviruses to viruses very similar to polio.
“I was having a great time,” Dr. Yeager said. “I love knowledge and being able to not only understand things but contribute to that understanding across the world.”
COVID-19 changed everything. Despite being a prime time for virologists, Dr. Yeager found himself doubting how soon he could truly make an impact.
“Academics can be ruthless,” he said. “You need to be constantly publishing to be a really successful scientist and my research wasn’t progressing as fast as it needed to be for constant publication.”
It led to an unexpected self-reckoning.
“I asked myself, ‘what can I do day-to-day to give back to my community while still being able to do the science,’” Dr. Yeager said. “The answer for me was dentistry.”
But there was a catch. He needed to find an institution that could train him as a clinician but also feed his hunger for research.
VCU not only embraced his unique skill set, but months later, it showed him just how much he was valued.
News of the scholarship came by email on a Friday afternoon earlier this spring, Dr. Yeager recalled. He almost didn’t believe it. He knew he hadn’t applied for a scholarship.
“To be selected for something that you didn’t apply for is humbling,” he said. “Somebody put you in contention for an impressive amount of money because they believed in your message — that’s something I’d always wanted to believe happened, but I personally had never had that happen to me.”
Lyndon Cooper, D.D.S., Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Dentistry, said Virginia’s oral health depends on recruiting students of the highest potential, plus providing exceptional education and clinical training.
“Not only do scholarships make dental education affordable, they allow us to attract the very best students who would otherwise attend schools in other states,” Dean Cooper said. “The Superstar Scholarship is a great example of how our aspirations for educational excellence impact the communities we serve. I encourage others to help us grow this fund so we may offer opportunities to more students, which ultimately assures excellence in oral health care for the Commonwealth.”
Iain Morgan, Ph.D., director of the Philips Institute and associate dean of research at the VCU School of Dentistry, dovetailed on those thoughts.
“Calvin has been a great addition to the lab, continuing his successful research while at the same time undertaking his dental studies,” Dr. Morgan said. “He is a joy to have around and makes a great contribution both technically and intellectually. He is an exceptional individual with a bright future.”
Looking back, Dr. Yeager said, VCU was the only institution that wanted to take advantage of all he had to offer.
“When I first interviewed at VCU for dental school, I could tell immediately that they were excited about me, that they cared about my research and about providing me with the opportunity to be trained as a clinician while still using my skills and my talents to do something different,” he said. “I can’t emphasize how many other places I went to that just didn’t care about my background.”
The scholarship only solidified for him that he made the right decision.
“My absolute priority in dental school is to be a good clinician,” he said. “But at the same time there are all these incredible scientists here at the Philips Institute doing impressive things, and I get to contribute with them.”
“I certainly felt a weight was lifted,” Dr. Yeager said upon learning he was the scholarship recipient. “Every moment that I don’t have to be working to live, I can start giving back to my community. Every dollar invested in me is redistributed to my community.”
If you would like the support student scholarships at the VCU School of Dentistry, please contact Gloria Greiner-Callihan, associate dean for development, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 804-828-8101.