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Women dentists ‘can do everything’

In celebrating Women’s History Month, new dentists share inspirations, advice

March 22, 2021

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Dr. Fairlee
Smiles: Dr. Amberena Fairlee and her daughter enjoy the sunshine and outdoors.
March is Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contributions of women and recognize the achievements women have made over the course of American history in a variety of fields.
   
As of 2020, according to the ADA Health Policy Institute, of the about 201,000 active dentists, 34.5% are female, up from 16% in 2001. And more and more women are pursuing dentistry.
   
According to the HPI, more than 50% of those enrolled in their first year of dental school are female. In 1997, only 37% of dental school graduates were women. Forty-two years ago, only 7% of dental school graduates were women.
   
The New Dentist News spoke with three new dentists, who are among the 34.5% practicing dentistry today, to ask them about the women who have inspired them and what advice they would give other women in the profession.

Amberena Fairlee, D.M.D., of Bend, Oregon.
Which women have inspired you in your personal and professional life? How did they inspire you?
The biggest inspirations I’ve had in my life are my mom, my best friend, and my daughter. Growing up, I watched my mom work tirelessly to help support our family, but I always knew she prioritized spending quality time with us. When I became an adult, I knew I wanted to emulate that for my own family. My best friend has given me a safe space to grow as a woman and mother. We’ve grown together and are each other’s biggest cheerleaders in all endeavors. My daughter has inspired me to pave the way for her and other girls to achieve their dreams. Seeing the world through her eyes gives me new purpose to be the strong female leader I hope she’ll be someday.

Professionally, I worked with two female dentists before deciding to become a dentist myself, Drs. Karlie Gaskins and Karen Coe. I hadn’t grown up seeing women in those kinds of positions, and the moment I worked with them, I knew I could do what they did. Dr. Coe took me on a trip to Honduras to do dental work in high-need areas. On that trip, I extracted my first tooth, and I become fully committed that dentistry was the right field for me.

What stands out to you as a pivotal time in your professional life?
I think I’m currently in my “pivotal time” professionally. I am a new graduate (4 years ago), going through a global pandemic, while going through multiple pregnancies and raising children. I’ve changed practices twice and really tested my flexibility.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what have you learned about yourself this past year?
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me a number of things about myself. First, I learned how resilient I can be during times of crisis. During the pandemic, I ended up leaving my job. For me, there hasn’t been a scarier time to change offices than when many of them are already working at reduced capacity and are facing financial deficits. I also learned how to properly focus on my priorities. If my professional career goes into slow motion briefly, I can still check off other personal goals on my list, like expanding our family.

What are your post-pandemic goals?
After the pandemic ends, I plan on attending as many in-person CE courses as I can in order to boost my clinical skills, and become more valuable in my field.

What advice do you have to other women in dentistry?
My advice for other women dentists is that you really can do everything, but don’t let that trick you into thinking you have to do it all at once. Sometimes the agenda of life has your priorities arranged in a different order than you originally expected. Keep your eyes clear, and focus on things one step at a time. Women are a gift to their professions, and should be treated as such.

Photo of Dr. Nguyen
Dr. Nguyen
Jessica Nguyen, D.D.S., of Forest Lake, Minnesota
Which women have inspired you in your personal and professional life? How did they inspire you?
Three women, to name a few: A dentist named Dr. Peterson, my mom, and my manager Tina. They all had one thing in common: work-family balance. Each of these women supported and trusted me in making the right decisions, while providing me with encouraging pep talks of how experience will come with time and reminding me of how important it is to have a work-family balance in life.

What stands out to you as a pivotal time in your professional life?
What stands out to me as a pivotal time in my professional life are our team-building meetings. An environment is created where it is safe to provide constructive feedback and to learn from one another is the best- building trust and support for one another. There’s no “I” in team. We have a dream team!

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what have you learned about yourself this past year?
I have learned about myself to be more patient and understanding of others. During this COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot more limitations, people may not be able to work, and their priorities may be elsewhere. Be patient with them. I have learned to listen to their concerns and emphasize the key to educating someone about their oral health.
 
What are your post-pandemic goals?
My post-pandemic goals is to continue to maintain a work-family balance. This is key because we cannot pour from an empty cup. Many people in the health care profession are very good at caring for others, and caring for ourselves last.

What advice do you have to other women in dentistry?
Keep loving yourself and celebrating that we are in the dental profession. Every so often, I hear how ‘young’ I look. I now take it as a compliment and I let my patients know that I appreciate the compliment. I then go about my daily routine. We have so much talent, so embrace and celebrate in it. Don’t let anything like being a woman in a dental profession, dissuade or discourage you.

Photo of Dr. Deshpande with mom
Inspiration: Dr. Sampada Deshpande poses for a photo with her mother. "I can't imagine crossing any big milestone in life without her by my side," Dr. Deshpande said.
Sampada Deshpande, D.D.S., of Seattle
Which women have inspired you in your personal and professional life? How did they inspire you?
My mom has inspired me the most. She is an entrepreneur, speaker and philanthropist. By setting an example, she taught me to trust my instincts and to dream big. She has been my biggest cheerleader and I can't imagine crossing any big milestone in life without her by my side.

What stands out to you as a pivotal time in your professional life?
In late 2014, after going through tw cycles of dental school rejections and everyone I knew encouraging me to consider an alternate career path, I somehow found the strength to persist and give it another try. I still don't know where that fortitude came from, I like to think someone was guiding me through an uncomfortable patch of darkness. I got three acceptances the following year and consequently, I am so grateful for the opportunity to practice in my dream profession today.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, what have you learned about yourself this past year?
During the pandemic, I became aware of how much I missed my ability to practice and the camaraderie I shared with my colleagues and best friends. I love the dentist community we have here in Seattle and feel blessed to count many of my colleagues as dear friends.

What are your post-pandemic goals?
My goal for practice ownership was reinforced during the pandemic. It became obvious to me (and my husband) that ownership was the next step for me. This is why I am currently looking at building my own practice.

What advice do you have to other women in dentistry?
Dream big. There is a need for you, your empathy and your skill set in the patient population around you. Remember that you can create anything you want. All you need to do is have trust in yourself.

Editor’s note: Register for the free webinar, Amplifying Voices: Today is Tomorrow’s History, scheduled March 30, 7 p.m. Central. The digital event will feature a multigenerational women’s panel. Panelists will share how they have transformed challenges into opportunities. This discussion will inspire resiliency and provoke bolder action, while also providing participants with concrete techniques that can be used to foster inclusion and make a positive impact in their community and profession. Brought to you by the ADA Diversity and Inclusion Committee and New Dentist Committees, this next event in the “Amplifying Voices” series is open to everyone.