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A Reason To Smile

Dental StudentsWith the support of faculty and staff, students at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine are making the community their clinic.


He leaned back in his chair, decked out in neon shades and smiling wide, taking in the spotlight. Seven-year-old Hassan was ready for his close-up.

"These are some really cool sunglasses," Tufts dental student Alex Moheban (A'04, D'08), told his young patient as the lamp overhead reflected off the dark lenses. But soon it was time to get down to business.

"Open up big for me," Moheban asked as he helped Hassan with a toothbrush. "Scrub scrub scrub, scrub scrub scrub. Then on the top, too. Show me again?"

This is no ordinary dentist's office. The bright orange walls of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston's Chinatown provide a colorful backdrop for the mobile dental care facility where Tufts School of Dental Medicine students Moheban and Leyla Tabesh (D'08) are working this November morning. They are supervised by a small staff of Tufts faculty and affiliates -- including Dr. Catherine Hayes, the chair of the newly formed Department of Public Health and Community Service -- as they give students hygiene instruction and decay-preventing sealants. In the afternoon, they'll switch off with other students eager both for the experience and the opportunity to help out.

"It's a great way to give back to the community, now that we know a little bit more. We're able to apply what we've learned in the past couple of years and serve those who wouldn't be able to access any kind of care in other places."

— Alex Moheban (A'04, D'08)

"It's a great way to give back to the community, now that we know a little bit more," says Moheban. "We're able to apply what we've learned in the past couple of years and serve those who wouldn't be able to access any kind of care in other places."

Indeed, the work being done at the Quincy School involves far more than lessons in toothbrushing. It's part of a large-scale effort to spread oral health awareness to underserved populations in the Boston area -- a key part of the dental school's mission that was bolstered by last year's $5 million gift from Delta Dental of Massachusetts.

"As public health dentists, we don't see the individual patient as our patient," says Hayes, whose professorship was endowed by the gift. "We see the community as our patient."

Meeting 'Tremendous Needs'

Hayes, a 1987 graduate of the dental school, came back to Tufts last year to head the new department, drawn by the opportunity to expand her longtime commitment to community service and work more closely with students.

"It's great for our students," Hayes says of the service opportunities. "It gives them an opportunity to get out of the confines of the dental school and see what it's like to be a community dentist, and hopefully it's something they're going to continue throughout their practice."

Student groups like Smile Squad, Smile, Share & Care and Project: Correct are just some of the student-driven service initiatives providing oral health awareness and care to underserved peoples in the Boston area. Students also participate in programs organized by the school -- the event at the Quincy School is part of a program called Smart Smiles, run jointly by the dental schools at Tufts, Harvard and Boston University.

Dental Students

Alex Moheban (A'04, D'08) and Leyla Tabesh (D'08) share smiles with a young patient.

"There are tremendous needs out there, in the world and the community," says Hayes. "When you have training as a professional, you're the only one who can really meet the needs of those individuals."

The needs, though, are significant. Some kids served by these programs have never been to a dentist before. The major problem, say the Tufts volunteers, is a lack of access. Too many barriers -- be they socioeconomic, language-related or even just a fear of the dentist -- stand between parents, their children and affordable health care.

Associate Professor Aidee Herman, former president of the National Hispanic Dental Association and advisor of the student chapter at Tufts, assesses the situation in starker terms.

"[A single mom] is not concerned about oral health problems for the kids; she's concerned about putting food on the table," Herman says. "She doesn't have time to bring the kids to the dentist."

"When you have training as a professional, you're the only one who can really meet the needs of those individuals."

— Catherine Hayes

So the Tufts initiatives bring the dentist to the kids.

"Everything starts from the parents," says Aurora Alva (D'07), president of Smile Share & Care, a kids-oriented outreach organization that organizes readings, demonstrations and trips to Tufts' dental clinics. "Something as small as reading to the children about going to the dentist, taking care of their oral health -- it's not only going to motivate the children, it's also going to motivate the parents to get an idea of how important oral health is."

The approach used by these groups is thorough. In the Quincy School, for example, Hayes will bring students and faculty back at regular intervals to check in with students who previously received sealants, making sure they're on the right track to good oral health.

"It's completely different if you start them young," explains Sangeeta Shenoy (D'07), who heads the outreach group Smile Squad. "They're less afraid of dentists, they're more apt to take care of their teeth and then the parents know what to do, as well, especially when it comes to nutrition and fluoridation." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen

Chinatown photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer

This story originally ran on Jan. 8, 2007.