Kristin Sweeney, a member of the graduating Class of 2020, reflects on her most memorable experiences at HSDM and how they influenced her choice in career path. An active volunteer in many aspects of the HSDM community, Sweeney served as a member of the Admissions committee, as a Vanderbilt Hall residence advisor, and as a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Association. Sweeney also took a special interest in community outreach, volunteering her time with several organizations and earning honors for her work in the Global and Community Health track. In July, Sweeney will start a residency in pediatric dentistry at Ohio State University.
What made you initially want to become a dentist?
One of my favorite quotes attributed to Mother Teresa is “Spread your love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” Dentistry fulfills my desire to do this while combining my desire to work with patients and my passion for science, creativity, and teamwork.
Throughout your four years at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, which part of your experience has meant the most to you?
My classmates and professors have been the most influential aspect of my time at HSDM. Whether in or outside of school, I have been learning almost non-stop over the course of the past four years. While I grew and learned immensely professionally, I also have countless fond memories of sharing meals with classmates, exploring Boston, hiking, running mountain races and marathons, and making sure we enjoyed our dental school years.
How has your experience studying at HSDM impacted your career path?
My experience at HSDM has certainly guided me toward a career in pediatric dentistry. Spending my first year at Harvard Medical School (HMS) fostered my interest in working with patients who have medically complex diagnoses. Working with various populations and communities in greater Boston, taking global health classes, and collaborating on a project that reviewed oral health for pregnant mothers, cultivated my interest in prevention of dental disease. The ability to discuss treatment, clinical techniques, and questions with my professors facilitated my desire to continue learning about prevention and restorative techniques. Finally, my community health externship at Lynn Community Health Center gave me the chance to become a part of another dental team and community which gave me a glimpse of integrating into a future community as a dental provider.
You mentioned that HSDM’s faculty has played an influential role in your HSDM experience. Can you share one example of an HSDM faculty member who has been a mentor to you?
This is a difficult question because there are many faculty members whom I have learned from and admire, and I think this is what has made HSDM a particularly meaningful place to train. Dr. Tien Ha-Ngoc Jiang has been an especially wonderful role model for me, both personally and clinically. From the time I started in the preclinical lab, Dr. Jiang has worked patiently with me to help me hone my clinical skills – something she continued to do until my final days in the Harvard Dental Center’s Teaching Practices. This often meant taking extra time out of her schedule to help me understand a concept or consult on a treatment plan.
In clinic, she regularly challenged me to think critically, and demonstrated how to treat patients with respect and dignity. Outside of clinic, she made extra time to advise me on career decisions. I admire her attention to detail as a clinician, her impact in oral public health and dental education, and her dedication to her family and friends. I remember one day in particular when I had an especially tough clinic session, Dr. Jiang challenged me to identify moments of progress instead of solely focusing on the tough lessons learned. I often reflect on this advice and have tried to share it with classmates. This illustrates her desire to encourage her students to continue to become better clinicians throughout their careers – an invaluable gift for a mentor to instill.
You have taken an interest in global and community health during your four years at HSDM. You’ve also been a regular volunteer in community outreach clinics. What motivates you to prioritize global and community health initiatives, and how has this influenced your career path?
“The Global Health Extension Course – Perspectives from Costa Rica” course in my second year not only introduced me to another country’s healthcare model, but also challenged me to think about healthcare models more broadly and how best to integrate outreach within those models. While I am uncertain of the most community-conscious, yet impactful, way to provide dental care in the context of an outreach setting, I know I want to continue to ask the tough questions about the best way to be a part of my community and the broader global health community as a dentist.
I hope that my involvement working at Give Kids a Smile and with Action for Children and Teens in Oral Health Need (ACTION) made a difference for the patients those organizations serve. These experiences helped me realize how much I enjoy working with pediatric patients and their families, and I am grateful to have been able to apply the dentistry I was learning at school in a clinical setting. Additionally, I hope that I was able to instill oral hygiene habits in patients. In the long term, I will continue searching for ways to further my involvement in improving the oral health of my community.
In just a few weeks, you will begin a residency in pediatric dentistry at Ohio State University. What is most exciting about this new opportunity?
I am excited to begin specializing in pediatric dentistry because it combines many of my passions with developing techniques to instill oral health awareness and practices into young patients. At HSDM, building relationships with patients has been the most meaningful part of patient care, and I will enjoy the added puzzle of helping young patients and their families address oral health concerns. I also look forward to growing my understanding of how to treat patients with behaviorally or medically complex diagnoses. Finally, I look forward to working with a new team of residents to provide care. Just like the treasure-filled community at HSDM, I am excited to be in an environment where I will continue to build life-long relationships amidst a hard-working team that is dedicated to providing the best care possible.