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Women dentists wearing superhero capes

The wonder women of oral health

Mentoring the next generation

“If you had to pick a superhero to describe your path in dentistry, which superhero would you choose?”

Peggy O’Neill, PhD ’74, DDS ’90, contemplated the seemingly odd question posed to her by the moderator during the Women in Dentistry: Reflections of the Past and Present event panel at UTHealth School of Dentistry. Then an answer came to mind—one that would honor her fellow panelists and other women in oral health car

“Wonder Woman,” she said.

A UTHealth alumna of the School of Dentistry and MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School, O’Neill is Professor Emerita and former Associate Dean for Patient Care at the School of Dentistry. Now serving on the board of The University of Texas Houston Retiree Organization, O’Neill continues to make her mark in the field of dentistry.

Her answer serves as an apt description of the school’s female students, alumni, staff, and faculty, who fight to protect oral health in our communities while often balancing the responsibilities of work and family life.

The Women in Dentistry panel, held virtually in September 2020, is one of the ways the school recognizes and encourages these remarkable women. Panelists included Sarah Arafat, DDS ’17; Amber Lovatos, BSDH ‘13, RDH; Mai-Tram Nguyen, DDS ’91; Kathy O’Keefe, DDS ’85; and Mary Riggs Patten, DDS ’78.

Arafat, now a first-year resident in the school’s Advanced Education in Pediatric Dentistry Program, exemplifies the strength of Women in Dentistry. As a first-generation American and the first in her family to attend a higher education professional school, she says there have been lots of unknowns, but she has been able to succeed with the help of female role models, including School of Dentistry faculty.

"I thrive when I see other women succeeding and realize it’s possible,” Arafat says. “I couldn’t have done all this without the many, many mentors I have in my life.”

Unfortunately, professional female guidance has not always been readily available to women. According to the American Dental Association, in 2001, only 16% of dentists working in dentistry in the United States were female. However, that number has been steadily rising and now stands at about 33%. The School of Dentistry actively trends higher than the national average. Nearly half of the school’s faculty—and over half of all dental students—are women.

“For those of us later in our careers, I think it is a very important part of our responsibility to support younger women who are coming behind us—to encourage them, to show them the ropes, to let them know what’s available and how to get where they want to be,” adds O’Neill, who worked as a research technician in the 1960s before pursuing doctoral degrees from MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School and, later, the School of Dentistry.

“Some of the best mentors I have had in my life have been women,” says School of Dentistry Dean John A. Valenza, DDS ’81, who names O’Neill among his own role models. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”

As O’Neill reflected on the imagery of superheroes at the Women in Dentistry panel, she imparted a few words of advice to her fellow wonder women of oral health: “Women need to foster and encourage each other to get out there and take that next step. If you are Wonder Woman—and I think my students and colleagues are wonder women—then get out there, jump right in, and do it.”

From toothaches to teachable moments
“You hear of children missing school because of tooth decay—that was me,” Lovatos says.

She remembers once visiting the dentist with her mother after experiencing pain for days, only to be taken home without treatment because her parents could not afford the cost. She recalls how her mother used home remedies instead, putting ground cloves in the hole in her tooth, and how she waited for months for the pain to ease.

Years of improper oral hygiene in childhood led to complications in adulthood as well, resulting in tooth extractions, fillings, root canals, crowns, and periodontal treatment.

Her poor dental care as a child—stemming from a lack of education about oral health, prevention, and available resources—now drives her passion for oral health care.

“I became a dental hygienist because I think education is key,” she says. “I also think having providers who speak the same language as their patients helps increase patient compliance and understanding.”

Lovatos organizes a variety of community outreach events, including oral screenings, dental care days, and educational events to teach oral hygiene.

It was this desire to help others, in addition to the need for financial security, that drew her to the field of science as a teenager. Today, she is a first-generation college graduate with a successful career, loving husband, and two teenage sons.

“My tenacity and ability to set goals and strive for those goals—even if I fail along the way—really helped me get to where I am,” she says. “I have also been blessed to have a really good network of professionals who have supported me.”

In turn, she encourages her fellow women of science to leave their mark on the world.

“Know that you have something to contribute and others have something to gain from you,” she says. “Don’t miss an opportunity because you are scared or lack confidence. The only one doubting you is you.”

Now looking to the future, she is excited to continue serving others and ensuring that other children don’t have to miss school due to issues like toothaches.

“I want to continue to make an impact whether that’s through public speaking, my community outreach work, or instilling a passion in other professionals to give back to the community,” she says.

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