Conversations with leading women in dentistry series: global representation matters
Highlighting the work of women who have made inspiring and transformative strides within the oral health community. This month, we are proud to profile leading academics and oral health advocates in dentistry from around the world: Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Dr Sarita Thapa, Nepali dentist trained in Bangladesh focused on delivery of oral healthcare to Nepal’s most underserved populations.
Dr Farzana Nawabi is president of Afghanistan’s National Dental Association. After four years of working at a teaching hospital, she pursued her further education in a residency program for oral and maxillofacial surgery.
Prof. Dr. Nazia Yazdanie, PhD (London); MSc (London); FCPS (Pak); FRCPS (Glasgow); BDS (Hons); BSc; FICOI; FICD. Principal and Associate Dean of Dentistry at Fatima Memorial Hospital College of Dentistry in Lahore, Pakistan.
Mia L. Geisinger, DDS, MS is a Professor and Director of Advanced Education in Periodontology in the Department of Periodontology in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Dentistry in the United States.
What inspired you to become an oral health professional?
Dr Thapa (Nepal): For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to help people. I really admired healthcare professionals like nurses and doctors growing up. At that time, dental health services in Nepal were minimal to non-existent in most parts of the country. Even if we fast forward to today, looking at the oral health of Nepali people, more than 80% of the total population does not have access to primary dental care. Because of these extreme conditions, I decided to become a dentist and serve my community to create a positive impact on people’s lives. “Smile” is a universal language that I have always wanted to spread and there is no better way to do that than as a dentist.
Prof. Geisinger (United States): I decided to enter dentistry at 16 years old. I have always been a bit of a planner, and at 16 I thought I should figure out my lifelong career path. I knew I wanted to work with people and be of service in the community, so I felt that a healthcare career could be a good fit. I took my parent’s Rolodex and called every person in it who worked in healthcare: physicians, physical therapists, nurses, occupational therapists, dentists, and so on and asked if I could have five minutes of their time to talk about their careers. I asked each and every one if I was their child, would they recommend I go into their profession and every dentist gave me an enthusiastic “YES!” I built upon that and worked in dental practices throughout college as a dental assistant and went on to apply to dental school. The rest, I suppose, is history!
Dr Nawabi (Afghanistan): The reason for choosing to become an oral health professional is the lack of specialized and trained female dentists in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, women who have dental problems do not go to a male dentist due to our society and culture.
Dr Al-mashhadani (UAE): I was inspired to become an oral healthcare professional when I was 10 years old. My mother was suffering from oral health problems and I used to accompany her to the dentist. The dentist was a very kind person, and he would patiently answer all my curious (and sometimes annoying!) questions. We must never underestimate the power of peer influence and the positive impact it has on young lives. As an oral healthcare community, we must encourage the young women of our society and provide them with all possible means within our capabilities to allow them to become those who make a difference in the world.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced throughout your career in dentistry?
Dr Thapa: In my career as a practicing dentist, the biggest challenge I have faced is a lack of awareness. Lack of awareness can manifest itself in many forms, like superstitious beliefs held by undereducated/uneducated members of our community regarding proper dental health practices. Other times lack of awareness manifests itself as prejudice towards women working in healthcare where they are not seen as equals to their men counterparts.
Dr Nawabi: The challenges and problems in a country like Afghanistan, which has gone through years of war and insecurity, are many. But for me, the biggest challenge was five years away from school because women were not allowed to study and work under the Taliban government.
Dr Al-mashhadani: I think one of the greatest challenges is to balance your ambitions and obligations and to be able to succeed in both. As a woman there are many responsibilities you face in society and many roles you must play and fulfil. Whether you choose to be a partner in someone else’s journey or a mother caring for the children you bring into this world, it is not an easy task. You want to be able to work it all through and still stand strong for yourself and your concepts of life.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women oral health professionals?
Dr Thapa: Dentistry is a never-ending learning process. For upcoming women dentists and oral health professionals, my advice is to have that mentality of a lifetime learner and treat all your patients with all your mind and heart. At the same time, it is also important to give back to the community that you serve in any and every way you can.
Prof. Dr Yazdanie (Pakistan): The driver of success is the ability to take initiative. While women in Pakistan are generally making their mark in all those fields that were historically dominated by men, I suggest fellow women to balance their family commitments with professional ones so that they can maximize their potential and address the large gap in provision of dental care to the masses.
Prof. Geisinger: I would advise them to ask for help and advice from people they admire. At worst, would-be mentors will be flattered and may not have time to engage, but at best, one can get great insights on how others have handled tough situations. I would also say, find a way to give back to your community and Profession—in whatever way your unique talents may allow. And lastly, I would tell my young colleagues to find time to take care of themselves—their mental and physical well-being—so that they can be the best caregivers for others.
Dr Al-mashhadani: It is very important to set your goals and stay focused in achieving them. Never compare yourself and your journey to anyone else. What counts as their success or failure differs greatly from what you consider as yours. I always advise my daughters to seek out what makes them happy, feel successful and do what they are passionate about. Learn from others, seek advice from those who are more experienced in life and never think that you have reached the level of complete knowledge. Always seek out knowledge because knowledge is power and wisdom and with that you will be able to make the right choices, make mistakes and learn from them. I would encourage young women in our profession to enjoy the act of giving through joining community dental services, help in providing oral health services to be able to make a difference and support others.
Can you tell us about an achievement that you’re particularly proud of?
Dr Geisinger: My proudest accomplishment has always been the success of my previous students and their ability to define their own success—however that looks for them. I have also been fortunate to serve as the “first” in several arenas. I was selected as the youngest and first female President of the American Academy of Periodontology Foundation and the first female Chair of the American Dental Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs. In both of those cases, several women have followed in my footsteps and have led those groups through challenging circumstances! Being the first can be an important reminder of possibilities, but it is more important that we are able to change the face of what leadership may look like so that ALL qualified individuals feel like they have an opportunity to become involved and to succeed.
Dr Al-mashhadani: I was involved in setting up the first oral health school programme in Dubai called “My Smile School Health Programme” where we were able to improve the oral health of 4,000 children. I also am very proud to be part of a mentoring program of the younger generation of dentists, dental hygienists and school nurses to become advocates of good oral health. Every time I meet one of them and see how much they have accomplished gives me a sense of pride and happiness that motivates me to think that we must do more.
Dr Thapa: As part of community outreach events organized by Sairam Dental (a dental clinic I co-founded with my husband Dr Ajay Neupane), it has been our honour to organize dental camps to deliver preventive and rehabilitative dental services to underserved people of our community living far from urban centers of Nepal. Over the year we have held several dental health outreach programs and educational programs for young kids, teenagers, and their parents. So far, we have been able to provide free dental services to over 15,000 people who had never seen an oral health care professional before. The impact we have been able to create is something that I feel really happy and proud about.
Prof. Dr Yazdanie: Being the first woman in Pakistan with a doctoral degree in prosthodontics, I decided to serve in Pakistan, and that turned out to be the best decision. I feel fortunate to have inspired at least three generations to choose dentistry over medicine at entry level, something unheard of 40 years ago. Another achievement is that I was able to motivate and contribute to changing the prevailing dental landscape positively through equal gender representation and job parity. Today, a typical undergraduate dental classroom is majority female.
Dr Nawabi: My best achievement is the establishment of the Dental Association in Afghanistan so that I can serve the people and the profession in this way. Plus, I have been proud to represent Afghan dentists on international platforms.