Finding Purpose in Public Health and Dentistry

May 6, 2021
Laura Lin, DMD21

Laura Lin, DMD21, first became curious about dentistry when she overheard a classmate at Cornell University talk about how dentistry is the perfect combination of art and science. Intrigued by the concept, Lin embarked on her dental career with an open mind about where it would take her. She pursued shadowing opportunities at local dentist offices, establishing relationships with mentors who would guide her in the years to come. As she prepares to graduate from Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) in May, her impact on HSDM’s community outreach efforts, as well as her interest in public health, show a clear path toward making a mark in the field of global and community health.

Lin’s interest in public health started early on. During her undergraduate education, Lin studied abroad in Nepal and helped start a six-year collaboration with Jevaia Oral Health Care, a nonprofit organization that addresses health care disparities and access to dental care in rural Nepal.

Laura Lin, DMD21, providing patient care with her classmates at the ACTION clinic.With an interest in combining dentistry with her newfound passion for public health, Lin chose Harvard School of Dental Medicine to help her bring her goal to life.
“The interdisciplinary environment at Harvard supported my path in becoming more than a clinical dentist,” she said. “At HSDM and HMS, we are exposed to faculty in education, public health and policy, basic science research, and many more. This allowed me to explore public health as I was learning about dentistry.”

Throughout her career at HSDM, Lin has gone above and beyond to serve her community, giving more than 500 hours of her time to volunteer work and outreach projects. She has served as the co-president of the Wampanoag Outreach Group and as a volunteer provider for HSDM’s ACTION Clinic, which is a student volunteer-run pediatric dental clinic. She has also served as a student researcher in HSDM’s Office of Health Policy and Epidemiology and for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Public health has been my passion since college. My undergraduate training taught me to analyze and problem-solve health issues from a broader, more systemic lens,” Lin said. “I knew that simply being a clinician would not effectively relieve communities from the burden of oral disease. This is why I engage in extracurricular activities, because in the future I want to bring positive, sustainable change to communities, starting with learning about public health in addition to the didactic curriculum at HSDM.”

Laura Lin, DMD21, with the Wampanoag Outreach Group on Martha's Vineyard.While working with the Wampanoag Outreach Group, Lin learned the importance of understanding the needs of the communities that she serves, as well as the unique barriers they face. She also learned that these efforts often take quite a bit of time, and require building trust with communities.

“When Paul Chung, DMD21, and I joined Wampanoag Outreach Group, we were the only two students working with Dr. Brian Swann at that time,” she shared. “We had many ideas about how to expand our project to better understand and promote oral health for the Wampanoag Tribe on Martha’s Vineyard; however, as we have quickly learned, public health interventions take time and patience. We are very thankful to have recruited seven enthusiastic dental students to join our mission and continue our projects, including conducting an oral health needs assessment survey. What I loved the most about Wampanoag Outreach Group is the opportunity to problem-solve issues together with my teammates and members of the Tribe.”

Lin has also done quite a bit of research throughout her time at HSDM. Much of her research has focused on social determinants of health and healthcare policy, and she is currently researching the impact of Medicaid expansion.

“Interested in addressing health disparities, I wanted to learn more about the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid Expansion, as it serves to improve healthcare coverage for vulnerable populations. Conducting research is my way of better understanding a topic, which is why I chose to evaluate the impact of Medicaid Expansion on children’s oral health,” she said.  “Furthermore, I hoped to build skills in data research, as producing and understanding data are crucial aspects to making public health decisions, especially on a policy level.”

Laura Lin, DMD21, poses with her family at her White Coat Day at Harvard.After she graduates from HSDM in May, Lin is pursuing public health training at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is particularly interested in formal training in epidemiology and biostatistics. “My experiences with epidemiology research, including social determinants of oral health in rural Nepal and on the impact of Medicaid expansion on children’s oral health, have shown me that there is so much more to learn about what it means to do good research,” Lin said. “After seeking my Master of Public Health degree at the Chan School, I plan to pursue residency to further build my clinical skills. In the future, I see myself practicing as a clinician, conducting research in public health, and engaging in policy work.”

As Commencement approaches, Lin has been reflecting on what has been the most memorable part of her time on Longwood Avenue. “Building meaningful relationships with my peers, mentors, and many others in the community has been the most impactful part of my experience at HSDM—these relationships are invaluable and supported me significantly throughout my time at HSDM.”