Texas A&M School of Dentistry

On Campus

A Day in their scrubs

Meet D2 Ethan Erwin, dental student, inventor and business owner

There’s something interesting that happens when Ethan Erwin encounters a problem. He pores over the situation, picking apart every detail piece by piece. Invariably, the answer he comes up with is all at once practical yet out-of-the-box; heck, even patent-worthy.

Like the time his sophomore year of high school when the idea for the short-bow first entered his mind.

“I was riding down the road one day, and I was thinking about special effects for electronic instruments such as a keytar,” says Erwin, a classically trained violinist. His sister, Susan Erwin, a singer and international performing artist, had one such instrument — a small electronic keyboard held like a guitar — and he wondered about leveraging its special effects capabilities.

“I was thinking about sustaining tone to get a very stringed instrument sound out of a keytar,” Erwin says. “I was like, ‘Well, why can’t people do that with a fiddle, have a small bow in their hand?’”

And the short-bow — essentially a violin bow less than 12 inches in length — was born.

He started the patent process that very year.

“I had the idea, and I made an atrocious prototype,” Erwin recalls. “But I saw the potential, talked to some musicians, and I went and found a patent attorney, submitted a patent application, and in a very unusual circumstance, I got the patent accepted without having to make any revisions.”

The reason: There was no prior art. No concept even remotely similar existed.

So 10 years, one $11,000 Arkansas Governor’s Cup business plan award and several strategic decisions later — including a face-to-face meeting with country music icon Charlie Daniels — the short-bow is slowly infiltrating the highly traditional world of fiddle and violin. Artists specializing in other instruments have even begun to test the waters.

After winning the collegiate business competition his senior year at the University of Central Arkansas, Erwin realized he had a choice to make.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I could take the money and put it in the bank, and I’m sure I would be able to use that in dental school, or I could do something crazy here, and I could start a business.’ So that’s what I did.”

Ethan Erwin
Ethan Erwin with the short-bow

He invested the bulk of his winnings in two 3-D printers, spending much of his entire senior year of college learning how to write the CAD — computer-aided design — files to get the short-bow designs perfect. His sister, who handles marketing and sales, now creates the bows and manages the orders when she’s not on tour.

The short-bow isn’t the only thing produced from the printers. He’s also sold more than 100 customized wooden duck calls through his other venture, Southbound Down, dedicated to waterfowl sports. On more than one occasion, just for fun, Erwin has created drink koozies with the printer, even fabricated a ping-pong paddle to use in the student lounge when sparring against classmates.

He’s already thinking ahead to private practice.

“I think I paid it forward when I learned how to write CAD files and understand the types of 3-D printers. It’s very realistic that one day I will be able to make my own surgical guides for implants,” he says. “Being able to make those in house would lower the cost for the patient.”

This salesman has no buyer’s remorse about his decision to set his sights on Texas A&M College of Dentistry.

“It’s been just as thorough, just as solid of a program as I had expected, even exceeding my expectations in a lot of ways,” Erwin says. “I enjoy the thoroughness of it. It’s a great school. End of the story.”

Hometown: Hot Springs, Arkansas

Undergrad institution: University of Central Arkansas

Why Texas A&M College of Dentistry: There are a lot of reasons. One of my good friends from undergrad, Steven Clark, is a D3 here. Before I even started looking as thoroughly as I could, I was automatically eyes on A&M because I knew he chose it for a reason. I interviewed at other schools, and I felt like I was getting a sales pitch. When I came down here, y’all didn’t try to sell me anything. It was very informative, very thorough. It was my No. 1 choice.

In all honesty, I enjoy taking class down in Room 6, where professors much older than I am come in and say, “That was my seat.” It happens all the time. We’ve got a lot of good alumni. That is such a good example for us.

Dental school survival strategy: This is a very basic, simple strategy. In an optimal scenario, I start studying a week in advance. Wake up early, use that optimal time between 4 and 8 a.m. when no one is going to disturb you.

I realize that looking at the content two or three times is much better than trying to memorize it all at once. Dental school is only as hard as you make it. The times I have put off studying until the last day or two were very stressful. My strategy of doing a little bit at a time has been very good to beat stress. Now I just feel so much more relaxed when I go into finals.

Favorite energy food: I love a Cajun turkey sandwich. It’s the perfect balance. You don’t get a sugar spike; it’s good longevity food — keeps me going.

Best way to unwind after a long day in lecture, lab or clinic: If I had my ideal day, I would get out of class, hopefully by 4. I might grab a game of tennis with my classmates from 4-5 or 5:30, and then I usually chill out and go to bed fairly early.

Dental school aha moment: When we cast our gold crown in D1 year. What seemed unimaginable came to life in such an impressive way. The way it fit on our typodont was very impressive. The whole process seemed so simple, and it turned out so great. I pay attention to the most microscopic detail, and when I see a new product, always one of the first questions I have is, “How does it work?” That allows me, as a business owner now, to implement those strategies. I always try to play with the techniques. I know that there are different techniques out there, and everyone’s style is different.

Best clinic experience: I have had very limited experience with patients as a D1, but on rotations, I really appreciated the competence of upperclassmen and the experience they have garnered in what seems like such a small time period. They have been very generous and informative in sharing their experiences — what they like, what they don’t like.

Goal after graduation: My goal is to own a practice at some point in the near future back in Arkansas.

What people may not know about you: When I’m here, I fit in with this studious group. Deep down, I definitely fit in with the rural people of Arkansas just as well. It might be more of my element. I am an outdoorsman. I love to hunt. Long-distance shooting — that’s my passion. I’m from rural Arkansas; there’s not much there. When I went to undergrad, it was hard to go to sleep hearing cars go up and down the road.