Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
A: When I was little, I always told my mother: “I want to rule the world so I can fix it.” When I realized that this job title did not exist, I opted for the presidency. But those dreams were quickly crushed when I learned in my U.S. government class that you must be a natural-born citizen to be president. Luckily, all was not lost for this Ghanaian immigrant. As I grew older, I learned that there are other ways to enact positive change and solve problems — and was lucky enough to find my niche in health care.
Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.
A: As an undergraduate at UNC, I was an exercise and sports science major and worked with the dental school for my honors thesis. Throughout that journey, I was constantly asked, “What does exercise and sports science have to do with dentistry?” I’ve always been a strong believer that oral health and overall health are not mutually exclusive. These two seemingly separate institutions worked together to show that comprehensive dental care can improve overall quality of life in one of the most vulnerable populations: people living with HIV.
Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?
A: During my second year of dental school, I was assigned a patient who came in to repair a fractured front tooth. We came from opposite backgrounds. He was an elderly Caucasian male and I could feel him sizing me up the moment I introduced myself. Within seconds, he was questioning whether I was “old enough” to do the work and inquiring into where I was “really from.” As an immigrant woman of color, having my abilities questioned and being met with skepticism is something I am all too familiar with. But I see these encounters as an opportunity to challenge preconceived notions and change perceptions.
Despite my patient’s skepticism, I was committed to providing the highest standard of care to meet his needs. I even performed the entire dental procedure standing up to accommodate his complex medical history and prevent complications that would arise from having him lie down. After completing his restoration, the patient was stunned and apologized for his previous sentiments. He was grateful I was able to fix his front tooth and restore his confidence. To this day, this patient reaches out to see if I can take care of all his dental needs.
Q: Describe your research in 5 words.
A: Health begins with the mouth.
Q: What are your passions outside of research?
A: Community service and music. Service motivates me and serves as a constant reminder that I am working toward something bigger than myself. Disparities are present throughout the health care profession, dentistry included. I serve my community because I know there are people within North Carolina and across the country who need it.
Throughout my life, music has been one of my greatest outlets. I grew up reading and singing classical music. From singing when I study to singing while I perform lab work, music is woven into every aspect of my day and helps me stay sane in the midst of earning my doctorate degree. I even bring music with me into the operatory. My pediatric patients love singing along with me, and my older patients say it puts them at ease during dental procedures.