Whenever Miguel Padilla-Hernández, a fourth-year student in the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, visits his family back in California, conversations are peppered with questions such as, “’Oh, this tooth hurts, why does this tooth hurt?” or “Why is this tooth changing colors?”
Many dental students might want a break from these kinds of conversations while away from school, but for Padilla the questions serve to validate his decision to pursue a career in health care.
“It makes me feel good that they turn to me,” he says. “And that’s just the need in the immediate family; I can only imagine the needs of the whole community.”
Padilla comes from Modesto, which has a substantial Hispanic population. He was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, moving at the age of 3 to the United States with his parents, who immigrated seeking better opportunities for their family.
His father is a truck driver, and his mother a homemaker; neither went to college. Yet from a young age, Padilla knew he wanted to become a dentist.
“I had a lot of problems with my dentition when I was young and liked my dentist,” he says. “He told me it would be great if I could come back and be a dentist in my community. That convinced me.”
Motivated by his conviction and encouraged by a high school teacher, he enrolled in Modesto Junior College, becoming the first member of his family to attend college. (But he’s not the last: His four younger siblings are all either in college, on track to go or have already finished.)
After two years, he transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in molecular biology. He worked as a research technician in a lab for a year, studying fruit fly genetics, before starting at Penn Dental Medicine in 2009.
While completing the rigorous dental curriculum, Padilla is simultaneously working toward a master’s in public health and, along with classmate Rayna Strong, last year launched a Penn student chapter of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry.
Through the club, Padilla, Strong and other students have had the opportunity to attend the association’s national meeting in Milwaukee, discuss public-health issues with local congressional representatives in Washington and reach out to Philadelphia high school students to inspire them to pursue dentistry.
Padilla plans to pursue pediatric dentistry and wants to return to Modesto to practice.
“Pediatric dentistry involves a lot of public-health elements and a lot of preventive health care,” he says. “I want to go back to my community because they’re lacking people like me, who speak Spanish and come from the area. If I go to a community like that where it’s almost 50 percent Hispanic and I’m treating little kids, I feel like I can inspire them, like my dentist inspired me when I was younger.”