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'A full-time job:' Students design, oversee fundraising for mobile dental clinic

May 12, 2017

By Michelle Manchir

Tempe, Ariz. — A newly minted mobile dental clinic will help dentists provide care to underserved patients in Nicaragua thanks in large part to a persistent group of engineering students at Arizona State University.

The 24-foot, two-unit mobile dental clinic is self-sufficient with two operating spaces that include all necessary dental equipment, including a designated sterilization space to ensure proper sanitation of all handpieces and tools.

In 2013, the state-of-the-art trailer was little more than a well-thought-out idea in the minds of students associated with ASU's Engineering Projects in Community Service, a design-based service learning and social entrepreneurship program. They partnered with IMAHelps, a California-based nonprofit, that completes mission trips with volunteer physicians, surgeons, dentists and others.

The students, led by Sara Mantlik and Nick Kemme, who graduated May 10 with master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the university, oversaw design, construction and fundraising for the mobile clinic. In its October 19, 2015 issue, the ADA News published a story ("ASU Students Building Mobile Dental Clinic") about their fundraising goal of upwards of $180,000 for what was called one of the biggest ever student-led fundraising initiatives associated with the entrepreneurship program.

"I still have to pinch myself when I think about it being complete," said Ms. Mantlik, who has already secured a post-graduation spot in GE Healthcare's Operations Management Leadership Program. "I still feel like I should be stressed out about things getting done."

At times, the project has felt like a full-time job for Ms. Mantlik, the project manager, who caught a break in March. That's when a Tucson, Arizona-based startup company, Catalina Laboratory Products LLC, stepped up to donate thousands of dollars worth of furnishings and also their time to ensure completion of the clinic before the students' graduation. The company also fully stocked the clinic's interior with laboratory-grade cabinetry and countertops, and it modified the electric and various fixtures inside the trailer.

Ms. Mantlik called the connection to the startup, which the students got through a contact at ASU, a game changer for the project.

Smiles for the road: Recent Arizona State University engineering students Nick Kemme and Sara Mantlik stand outside the mobile dental clinic they designed. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU
"It was more amazing than I could've imagined," Ms. Mantlik said. "Before they came through, we were trying to figure out what would be the bare minimum we could give IMAHelps before graduation."

Many other donors pitched in help with funding and time, including students at A.T. Still University in nearby Mesa, Arizona; a Tempe, Arizona, council member who organized a fundraiser; and more than 100 other individual and corporate donors over the past four years.

The scope of the students' project was among the largest taken on by the Engineering Projects in Community Service program, said Scott Shrake, Ph.D., who was director of the program when the students started the project.

"It was a roller coaster and probably the best learning experience those team members have had in their life," said Dr. Shrake. "The students and the local community truly came together to make this project a reality. I can't say enough about Sara and Nick's leadership — and stubbornness. Their passion and efforts made a moonshot a reality."

The students' design for the trailer came in part with insight from dentists, including Dr. Antonio Gonzalez, who works with IMAHelps' dental division. Dr. Gonzalez said the new mobile clinic will help bring the organization's missions to fruition, adding "our volunteer dentists will be able to provide care in a modern facility, in a very proficient and efficient manner. Host countries do not have adequate facilities that can meet those standards."

The mobile clinic is expected to serve domestically, in Arizona and California, for up to a year before being relocated to Nicaragua, said Ms. Mantlik. Once in Nicaragua, the clinic may also be based at a local dental school, UNICA, where it will be used for dental student training and will give the students an opportunity to give back to their community.

Ms. Mantlik said completion of the project is a sort of "graduation present to myself."

"Everyone was coming together to help us get the clinic done. No one had any direct benefit from it, but people chipped in to help us get it done and that is what to me was so amazing."

To learn more about the project, visit