This article is part of our 2020 Top Dentists feature. Learn more about our advisers and browse the list, here.
When Ashley Reid was young, she had what she describes as “a large gap” between her teeth, and “a profound overbite.” “I was teased because of it,” she says. In her junior year of high school, she says, “My mom finally decided it was time for me to get braces.”
Desperate to have the metal work removed before senior pictures were taken, Reid endured weekly tightening by the orthodontist to expedite their removal, but unfortunately missed the photo-op deadline. Now, as a first-year student at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, she has that senior photo, gleaming braces and all, as the screen saver on her phone.
After the procedure, says Reid, “My confidence went through the roof.” Realizing that she could help others feel the same way contributed to her decision to study dentistry. Nationwide, 25,381 students were enrolled in pre-doctoral dental programs in the 2018-19 academic year, the highest number ever, according to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA).
Students choose dentistry for myriad reasons, including more predictable schedules than other medical fields, building ongoing relationships with their patients, and generous salaries, which can range from $150,000 to upwards of $300,000 for those in specialty practices.
But that’s just one part of the appeal, according to local aspiring dentists who spoke with Baltimore. And the COVID-19 epidemic, at its height when they were interviewed, didn’t seem to deter these students from their chosen field—which requires plenty of physical contact with patients.
On a study-abroad year in Nigeria during high school, Abiodun Oni saw disparities in the health system, but observed that while people were anxious to see medical doctors, they would neglect other aspects of their health. When she returned home to Florida, she called area dental offices to fInd a practitioner to shadow. Seeing firsthand the dentist’s engagement with his patients—and the patients’ responses—drew Oni to the field, she says. “One woman came in so upset; she didn’t want to be there,” Oni recalls. “But after the procedure, a root canal, she was ecstatic.”
Oni, who recently graduated from The Johns Hopkins University with a degree in chemistry, plans to attend Philadelphia’s Temple University Dental School in the fall. At Hopkins, Oni was president of the Pre-Dental Society, a student organization founded in 2015. The club, which had 29 members last year, hosts panels with professionals and current dental students, organizes outreach work for undergraduates to assist dentists working in challenged settings, and helps students and mentors. Despite its strong emphasis on general medicine, Oni says, “Hopkins doesn’t have as many resources for dental students.”
Her experience in Nigeria convinced Oni that dental care is important to overall health, and she intends to make that message a focus of her future practice. “I want people to understand that some diseases can start in the mouth.”
Alicia Briscoe stresses that idea. “If your mouth isn’t up to par, your body won’t be,” says the second-year dental student at UMD. Your dentist, she points out, can sometimes be on the front line of many a diagnosis. “A dentist can put things on the physician’s radar, things like diabetes and HIV can show up in the gum tissue.” Furthermore, confidence in one’s smile can improve mental and emotional health.
Growing up, Briscoe observed her mother’s random encounters with her patients in places like the supermarket: “People would come up and tell their whole story and cry and hug her. I was like, ‘This is amazing.’”
Abiodun Oni also looks forward to having relationships like that with her patients. And, as an African-American, she says, “I want to get closer to patients who may not be trusting of doctors.”
Reid believes that because dentistry requires strong patient rapport, dental schools look for personable applicants with well-rounded credentials. The notion that you need a 4.0 GPA to get into dental school, she says, is a myth. “You need to be able to network and have a dialogue in the community,” she says. “To get a 4.0, you have to be in the books all the time.”
But then what about the health crisis? When asked if the current pandemic has given them any pause about their chosen profession, the students are circumspect.
“You know what you’re signing up for when you get in the medical field,” says Reid. “You’re working with bodily fluids. You have to take the necessary precautionary measures to make sure you keep yourself and your patients safe.”
Oni is more contemplative. On a Facebook page she follows, she’s seen dentists respond in two ways: “Some are worried about the lack of people coming in, others are like, ‘We need to mobilize in the interest of public health, donating masks and volunteering,’” she says. “It’s making me think about how I want to practice. If this were to happen, would I be worried about losing business, or would I be mobilizing?”
She concludes that in all practicality, she’d respond with a bit of both.
Even so, Oni describes the coronavirus crisis as “a huge wakeup call,” a reminder to heed scientific data. “They’ve been telling us about this for months. Now we’re in a predicament. We should listen to professionals.”
The virus has also reminded those we interviewed that dentists, above all else, are servants of the public. To that end, and despite the potential financial outlay—the average student debt for dental school graduates in 2017 was more than $280K, according to the ADEA—most of the students we spoke to see outreach to less privileged populations as an important part of their future.
Take, for example, Eugene Bestman. He hopes to someday return to his native Ghana to open a dental practice—or even a chain of offices there. At 10 years of age, Bestman slipped and chipped a tooth, which a Ghanian dentist, who lacked both equipment and expertise, then extracted. Even after coming to the U.S. a decade ago, Bestman continued to have trouble with the tooth, first wearing an ill-fitting denture, called a flipper, then graduating to a bridge that didn’t quite adhere to the eroded bone.
He received a degree in neuroscience and biology from the University of Delaware knowing he wanted to pursue a career in health, but it was while researching his own dental issues that he came across the eld of oral maxillofacial surgery, the specialty that deals with diseases and injuries in the hard and so tissue of the head, neck, face, and jaw. “I turned a sad situation into a career,” he says.
As a third-year student at UMD School of Dentistry, Bestman is weighing the options. While the surgical specialty is appealing, he’s also drawn to general dentistry.
In the meantime, he’s finally getting his front tooth fixed. “So much time had passed, I didn’t have enough bone to place the implant,” he says. Dentists at UMD did a bone graft and he’ll soon get an implant. “I get a discount because I’m a student,” he explains. “I’m getting the best care I possibly could.”
Bestman is looking forward to his new tooth. “I can’t exactly walk around without a front tooth,” he says. “My patients would come in and ask, ‘Why is this dentist missing a tooth?’”