Hello from Boston! My name is Elizabeth Alpert, and I am pursuing a path in dental public health. Beginning dental school, I envisioned a career in clinical pediatric dentistry, but I soon realized how quickly goals change with experience and exposure to new perspectives.
As a dental student at the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, I had the opportunity to participate in numerous outreach events throughout the city. Although I grew up in the area, I was unaware of the reality of barriers to oral health care among different communities. This was my first exposure to the concept of social determinants of health – “the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes” (CDC). The importance of public health resonated more and more deeply, and I began to seek experiences beyond Buffalo.
Across the country, in vastly different settings, I repeatedly saw the same theme. Unintended consequences of systems-level policies catalyze inequities and inefficiencies in the US health care system, translating to dental disparities. Ultimately, I realized that the part of dentistry I was passionate about was addressing disparities in access to quality oral health care, which is critical to overall health and well-being.
Through outreach, I also realized how much I loved geriatric dentistry – which further changed my plans for pediatric dentistry. Instead, I decided to complete a GPR in Hospital Dentistry, at an institution with a strong MPH program. During my PGY-1 at the University of Washington, my rotations at different Seattle-based hospitals and medical centers undermined the connection between oral and systemic health. I also began realizing my clinical interest in treating adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and I completed a PGY-2 year in Special Care Dentistry. At this point, family obligations brought me to Boston, and I completed my MPH at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Currently, I am dividing my time between teaching, research, and clinical practice as I figure out the next step in my career. I am grateful to truly enjoy teaching dental students at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) and dental hygiene students at the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene; collaborating on oral health policy research with the HSDM Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology team; and practicing general dentistry in a private practice setting to strengthen my clinical skills.
For other early-career dental providers who face a similar dilemma – realizing that their true passion in dentistry is for dental public health and addressing population-level issues, rather than clinical dentistry treating individual patients, I’d like to share two main themes from my story. The first is to take your path one step at a time and know that even if is non-linear and impacted by factors beyond your control, following your passion will start taking you closer to the place where you best fit in dentistry. Secondly, develop relationships with mentors who share your core interests and truly care about you as a person beyond your dental skills, and trust their guidance. I am so grateful for my mentors, including Debbie Licata, Ana Lucia Seminario, Kim Espinoza, Ashland Doomes, and Jane Barrow – thank you all!