Minority children can have a dream—of dentistry


Dental students Jimmy Morrison and A. Melissa Lopez in full regalia.

Photo by: Daniel R. Burke

Neither A. Melissa Lopez (C’99,D’02) nor Jimmy Morrison (D’03) dreamed of being a dentist growing up.

Well, they both say that hardly anyone dreams of growing up a dentist.

But the two dental students, after observing the low numbers of minorities training for dentistry, want to plant that dream in the hearts of young minorities.

They presented a plan for how minority dental students can help plant that dream and how dental school admissions offices can further it at the ninth annual meeting of the Hispanic Dental Association, which was hosted by the School of Dental Medicine earlier this month.

Morrison, 28, who grew up in a Virginia Beach family teeming with doctors, podiatrists and all manner of health care professionals, expected he too would be a doctor—or a sports professional (he went to Pitt on a football scholarship). At age 24, when he was doing neither, he reevaluated his course.

He talked to physicians and talked to dentists. “I couldn’t find many dentists telling me they wouldn’t do it all over again.” He bit. The die was cast.

Lopez, 23, figured out her vocation earlier in the game, early enough to enter the University’s Biodentistry Program that enabled her to complete eight years of undergraduate plus dental school in seven years.

What inspired her decision, made in high school, was a combination of her sister’s braces making such a difference to her sister’s self-esteem and Lopez’s own good experiences with dentists.

Besides, she said, “Eighty percent of the [dental] caries [cavities] occur in 20 percent of the population—low-income, underrepresented [in dentistry] minorities. These are the children who need the help.” And it’s her intention to set up a pediatric practice for inner-city children.

Lopez, who grew up in Chicago, is the daughter of a Colombian mother and

Peruvian father. So she speaks Spanish as well as English. “If parents don’t speak English, they won’t take their children to a dentist who speaks English,” she said.

For Morrison, that sense of a need grew out of his experience one year as a substitute teacher. “It was probably my most rewarding experience,” he said. “I was able to give them a bit of guidance and see the potential of a young person. I was in their shoes just five years [earlier].”

Instead of letting that potential go to waste, why not channel it into dentistry, he thought.

So Lopez and Morrison set up last spring’s symposium to chew over the issue of diversity and to come up with a plan to draw more minorities into dentistry, which they presented earlier this month. A 2002 diversity symposium is in the works.

Penn’s Dental School has already taken steps under Dean Raymond Fonseca to increase the number of minority students. The school offers a half-tuition scholarship program for minorities, and the new class of dental students has more African Americans and more Latinos than prior classes, said Lopez. And the professional dental organizations are also studying the issue of dental care for minorities.

And now there’s a plan, thanks to Lopez and Morrison, that calls on minority dental students and dentists to fill the role of mentors, and drill the idea of a career in dentistry in minority children at an early age.

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Originally published on October 25, 2001