Taking the Field: Student-Athlete Finds Her Niche in Oral Surgery

May 2, 2022
Headshot of Nicole Beck

Grateful. That’s the word Nicole Beck, DMD22, uses to sum up her time at Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM).


Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, PA, Beck headed to the west coast to attend the University of California (UC), Berkeley as an undergrad, balancing her academic career between her studies and research in integrative biology, and playing Division I lacrosse.


“It was an amazing experience. I played attack and midfield,” said Beck. “I learned invaluable lessons and skills from being a student-athlete that are still relevant for me today.”


Facing career-ending injuries in the beginning of her junior year playing lacrosse, Beck was confronted with a difficult decision: quit the lacrosse team or define a new role that would allow her to contribute in a meaningful way. She soon became an essential link between the coaching staff and team – leading practices and refining techniques – ultimately focusing on her communication and listening skills to bring people together to achieve success on and off the field.


“With a keen interest in medicine in college, I soon found myself drawn to the team sport of surgery,” said Beck. “The coordinated effort of the operative team to work through challenging cases and provide outstanding patient care resonated with my experience as a student-athlete.”


Student standing on front entrance steps of HSDMAfter transitioning from being a student-athlete at UC Berkeley, Beck soon found herself searching for a new niche at HSDM. Shadowing an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in college, she saw first-hand the impact he had on his patients and their families through simple acts of kindness that built trust and put his patients at ease. Inspired by this experience, Beck committed herself to pursuing a DMD and MD to follow in oral and maxillofacial surgery. While studying at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in her first year of the HSDM curriculum, she worked with classmates and mentors to develop and execute the first global surgery symposium for students and trainees in Boston.


“Our event drew over 200 in-person attendees and thousands of virtual viewers worldwide. We built on the success of this symposium to establish and grow an internationally recognized non-profit, the Global Surgery Student Alliance (GSSA), that now supports over 2,400 students and trainees through research, education, and mentorship, with partnerships spanning the globe.”


Beck and her co-founders recognized that engaging students in global surgery efforts early in their careers is critical. To achieve the 2030 goals put forth by The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery and The World Bank, one must augment the global surgery workforce.


While building GSSA, Beck found her calling – surgical innovation and expanding access to care. She spent time in India researching underdiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea and uncovering the aftereffects that can arise from a lack of suitable infrastructure in health systems. Motivated to understand how to improve health systems, Beck put a pause on her DMD program at HSDM to pursue her MBA at Cornell University between her second and third years at HSDM.


“Aside from the hard skills I obtained, I learned how critical it is to have people in the room who can understand and integrate various perspectives. Great leaders are not only those who can execute effective strategies, but rather those who can also communicate in a manner that ensures everyone feels heard and understood.”


“My long-term goal is to integrate my clinical expertise, business acumen, and academic research experience to function as a link between multi-disciplinary stakeholders to strengthen healthcare systems by developing sustainable infrastructure that aims to improve access to, and delivery of, surgical care.”


Two people celebrating, holding sign that reads "We matched: 6 more years at Harvard!"Passionate about expanding access to care, especially surgical care, Beck will continue her advanced education after graduation with a six-year residency at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Harvard’s Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (OMFS) program.


“Surgery is a cornerstone of medicine and dentistry,” said Beck. “One of my primary objectives is to become a great clinician who is able to understand the needs and desires of my patients and to then diagnose and treat them appropriately. I want to learn the full scope of OMFS and be comfortable and competent treating and managing complex patient cases across the spectrum of this specialty.”


As she gets ready to graduate with her DMD degree in May, and begin her six-year residency in June, Beck takes the brief break to look back fondly on her time at HSDM.


“I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have had the opportunity to study at HSDM and be surrounded by incredible classmates, teachers, and mentors on a daily basis.”