Julie Reynolds charts a new path through dental school, grad school, and around the world
Sunday, March 18, 2012

Julie Reynolds had a part-time job during high school as a dental assistant in a private practice, so when she arrived at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry she assumed — as dental students typically do, she says — she would have her own practice someday.

An early public health course, however, as well as global experiences with underserved populations, nudged her toward studies in dental public health, but not like anyone had ever done at the UI. While pursuing her D.D.S., she took several courses in the dental public health specialty program, maintaining a grueling schedule, yet emerging in 2011 with numerous honors and a dental degree. She is now enrolled in the college’s graduate specialty program in dental public health.

“She did a great job juggling those graduate courses along with the usual rigors of being a dental student — that’s pretty remarkable. What Julie did might be a model for future UI students to get initial dental public health coursework done during their dental school years,” says John Warren, director of the dental public health graduate program.

Facilitating predoctoral experiences in public health is important, Warren says, because many incoming dental students don’t realize they can specialize in the field. Each year up to 15 candidates apply for three or four spots in the dental public health graduate program; many applicants earned their dental degrees abroad and are less likely to obtain licenses to practice in the United States.

In 2010, the college received a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Health Professions to increase public health learning opportunities for UI dental students. The grant supports a new dental public health student organization, a new seminar series, student attendance at a regional public health conference, and travel to the national dental public health annual meeting.

“My whole reason for wanting to do this is to increase the number of people I’m able to have an impact on."
— Julie Reynolds

The grant provided tuition support during Reynolds’ final year of dental school, when she squeezed in four graduate-level dental public health courses during the busy clinical year — thanks in large part to college administrators and faculty in family dentistry and preventive and community dentistry, and their creative adjustments to the course schedule.

UI dental students considering a public health career traditionally complete their D.D.S. and then pursue public health specialty training. The University of Iowa is one of the few institutions accredited for the two-year master’s program in dental public health; most offer only a general master’s in public health, which requires graduates to spend an additional year in residency for dental public health credentials.

The college is working to develop a public health distinction track for dental students, enabling them to take several public health courses — much like Reynolds did — to earn special recognition at graduation as well as a leg up when applying for a graduate program.

Reynolds expects to complete her M.S. in 2013 and then pursue a career in public health at the local level in the U.S.

“My whole reason for wanting to do this is to increase the number of people I’m able to have an impact on,” she says, citing a comment by Michael McCunniff, chair of dental public health and behavioral science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a UI adjunct instructor.

“He said that when he was in private practice he impacted the lives of maybe 20 people a day. When he went into public health and helped to critique the Missouri Dental Medicaid Program, the findings led to improvements in a program that impacted thousands of people across the state.”

This spring, Reynolds heads to Xicotepec, Mexico, to continue her work with Steven Levy, associate director of the UI graduate program in preventive and community dentistry and the Wright-Bush-Shreves Endowed Professor of Research, on a preventive program for school children.

“She’s focusing all the time on how much more needs to be done to help others,” Levy says. “Julie is a very good team player, a good leader, very hardworking, and takes full advantage of all of her opportunities. Also, her commitment and energy will pay dividends in the future, with initiatives we’re developing to involve more dental students in public health.”