Where are they now? Stem cell master’s program alumnus Nelson Poliran, Jr., a dentist in rural New Mexico

Nelson Poliran, Jr.
Nelson Poliran, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Nelson Poliran, Jr.)

In this series of alumni profiles, we highlight graduates of USC’s master of science program in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. Our accomplished alumni have pursued many different paths—ranging from a biotech industry job to a teaching career, and from a PhD program to professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, and law. As the 41 master’s students in the Class of 2022 prepare for graduation, we look forward to welcoming them into our vibrant, diverse, and growing community of alumni. Congratulations Class of 2022, and Fight On!

Francesca Mariani, master’s program director

When he started practicing dentistry in the rural town of Hobbs, New Mexico, Nelson Poliran, Jr., experienced a culture shock after spending several years in the master’s program in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC, and the DDS program at UCLA.

“It’s definitely a different lifestyle, but I’m very open-minded to experiencing this area of the U.S.,” he said. “I just wanted to know what the other side of this American lifestyle and culture is like.”

Raised in Monrovia, California, Poliran was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. at age 4. His parents obtained nursing degrees from Pasadena City College, inspiring Poliran’s lifelong interest in health care.

Poliran attended Monrovia High School before enrolling at Pasadena City College, and then transferring to the University of California, Riverside, where he majored in cell, molecular, and developmental biology.

After graduating with his undergraduate degree, he took time to explore his interdisciplinary interests. He enrolled in art and sculpture courses and played cello in the orchestra at Pasadena City College, while working as a math and science tutor for an after-school program for middle and high school students in Rosemead, California.

“I enjoyed tutoring,” he said. “The students are really smart at that age and very curious. And that’s why I wanted to go back and get a master’s to figure out if teaching, the PhD route, or the medicine route was right for me.”

Poliran also knew that California was a frontier of stem cell research, and that USC’s master’s program would provide an opportunity to contribute to a field with the potential to change lives.

During the master’s program at USC, one of Poliran’s most transformative experiences was volunteering in the laboratory of Professor Yang Chai, director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology and associate dean of research at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

“Working or volunteering in Dr. Yang’s lab made me think about all the different ways we could go about restoring teeth, as well as other craniofacial structures,” said Poliran. “I’ve always considered dentistry as a career in the long term, because you’re working with your hands. There’s a lot of artistry. There’s a lot of focus on the patient. You’re changing lives. So all those things resonated with me.”

Equally intrigued by the prospect of earning a DDS and a PhD, Poliran entered a dual degree program at UCLA. However, by the time he completed his DDS degree in 2021, his clinical experiences had convinced him that dentistry was his true calling. He decided not to pursue his PhD, and to become a general dentist with Aspen Dental in Hobbs. This corporate practice offered reimbursement for student loans, as well as exposure to more complex cases than Poliran expected to encounter in a larger city, where patients are more likely to keep up with their regular dental checkups.

Poliran enjoys working with a diverse patient population, which includes everyone from oil company employees to farmers. Approximately half of his patients are Spanish speakers, and many others are German speaking Mennonites. He’s also been able to speak Tagalog with a number of Filipino patients, many of whom moved to Hobbs to work as teachers.

“This is the reddest of all the state counties,” said Poliran. “Mask mandates aren’t really a thing here. I have to always tell my patients, ‘Please wear masks if you’re in our office.’ It’s a ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ culture. I wouldn’t have this experience in the city.”

In the years ahead, Poliran would like to experience other regions of the U.S., before returning to Southern California and owning a private dental practice.

“I’ve lived in California almost all my life, and I miss the city a lot,” he said. “But I’m very open, and I’m not fixed in one place. I’ve even considered Alaska and Maine. There are many opportunities, and I just like trying to see what else is out there.”

Mentioned in this article: Yang Chai, DDS, PhD