Describing himself as one of the world’s few “quantum dentists,” David T. Chuljian, PhD’84 in Chemistry, has an unusual perspective on dental decay rates, and particle-hole interactions.
Chuljian grew up in Port Townsend, Washington, until age 14. His father, G. T. “Chuck” Chuljian, had settled there in 1947 and opened a dental practice near the Keystone Ferry Terminal.
“Port Townsend was a very sleepy town in the 1960s. During summer, our day would be chores in the morning, then off on our bicycles and returning for dinner after spending the day with friends,” says Chuljian.
“We owned a small beach cabin on Discovery Bay, so many of our bike rides ended there to go fishing, swimming, or beach walking. Grade school was mostly at a one-room private school, with teachers of varying quality.”
“I had a couple of good teachers in elementary school, one of which was extremely varied in his knowledge and interests and he taught us a wild mix of things for science class – how airplanes work, astronomy, ecology, you name it. Math and science were fun for me after that,” says Chuljian.
“Like many dentists, my dad hoped at least one of us would go into dentistry, and it was assumed that all five of us kids would go on to college,” says Chuljian.
“But the local high school was not very academic – kids in town expected to work at the paper mill after graduation – so my parents sent us to a church-run high school, Auburn Academy, near Tacoma.”
After high school, Chuljian enrolled in Walla Walla College, a private Adventist school in College Place, Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1978. During his senior year at Walla Walla he applied to medical school and to various graduate schools around the country.
“At the time, the chairman of our chem department, Barton Rippon, was collaborating with some folks doing bioengineering type stuff, and he encouraged me to apply at Utah,” says Chuljian.
Remarkably, Chuljian did not actually apply to the chemistry department for graduate school.
“In fact, I applied to Utah’s bioengineering program. But my application packet somehow wound up at the chemistry department, where Jack Simons saw it before forwarding it to bioengineering,” says Chuljian.
“Jack then called me and asked if I was interested in interviewing in Chemistry as well as Bioengineering, and said they’d pay for my plane ticket. This seemed like a great deal, so I wound up doing both interviews on the same trip,” says Chuljian.
“As it turned out, Jack’s theoretical chemistry work was extremely interesting, close to physics which I also enjoyed. So, in the end, I went with the chemistry department.” Jack Simons later served as Chuljian’s research advisor.
However, after two years of graduate school, Chuljian’s research wasn’t progressing as he wanted and tenure-track jobs around the country were extremely limited in number.
“I’m reasonably intelligent, but not Einstein, and I could tell I wasn’t really cut out for an academic position in theoretical chemistry,” says Chuljian.
So, in 1980, he applied to dental school at the University of Washington in Seattle and started that program in fall semester 1981.
“Since I already had more than three years towards my chemistry doctorate, I worked on both degrees in parallel, coming back to Utah during summers and Christmas vacations, and working remotely, mostly finishing up papers. Of course, this was all pre-Internet so there were some real challenges.”
“I remember most of my Utah research group: Ajit Banerjee, Deb Mukherjee, Judy Ozment, Gina Frey, Jim Jenkins, Ron Shephard, Rick Kendall, and Hugh Jenkins. I haven’t seen most of them since graduating, although in 2005 Jack had a reunion in Park City and I saw several of them there,” says Chuljian.
Chuljian took a sabbatical during his senior year in dental school to finish up and defend his doctorate thesis in December 1984, then returned to Washington and finished up his clinical requirements and dental licensing exam in August 1985.
That same year, Chuljian moved back to Port Townsend and began working with his father as an associate in the dental practice. He later purchased the office in 1987 and his father retired in 1990.
“It was a standard small-town practice, doing everything including orthodontics and surgery since no specialists were available nearby. When I retired in 2017, I sold the practice which represented 70 years of family-owned dentistry, the oldest business in town I think,” says Chuljian.
Chuljian stays busy with a range of activities and interests, including forestry, flying, and rescue care of birds, in particular parrots. Over the years, Chuljian has rescued and cared for two African Grays, a couple of Amazons, several conures, and three Pionus species of parrots.
Today, Chuljian still resides in Port Townsend, which is no longer a sleepy bywater but has a vibrant arts and boating community. His typical day might include several hours working in his forest tracts, irrigating newly planted trees or removing invasive species, or milling lumber for the local animal shelter’s building projects. Or it could be a 10-hour day drilling and filling at the local public health dental clinic. He enjoys mountain biking, but when he qualified for Medicare he upgraded to an eBike!