One Degree, Countless Opportunities

Alumni Use Their Education to Open Doors Beyond the Dental Clinic
By: Bryce Puntenney

When graduates leave the UMKC School of Dentistry, they’re ready for the rigors thatcome with working inside a dental clinic. But they’re also prepared for a multitude of other opportunities where they can put their degrees to work. Alumni Laila Hishaw, William V. Giannobile and Nathan Suter may have taken their knowledge in different directions, but they all share the common goal of making a lasting impact on the field of dentistry.

Mentoring clinicians of color
A mindless scroll of her Facebook feed is what inspired Laila Hishaw (D.D.S. ’00) to start a national dentistry nonprofit, an effort she claims has rejuvenated her as a clinician.

In 2018, after 18 years in dentistry, burn out began to settle in. One night, while she was scrolling through Facebook posts, she saw a statistic on the racial disparities in oral health. As a Black woman, she felt compelled to do something. She started with her own social media post, just asking if anyone she knew had a child who needed mentorship in dentistry. That one post kicked off a broader conversation among her dental friend group. Hishaw found that many other dentists were interested in mentoring, and there were quite a few parents seeking mentors for their kids. So, she created a Facebook group that became a space for parents and students who were interested in dentistry to connect and ask questions with real dentists on topics such as interviewing at a particular school or navigating the application process.

“Mentorship really did reignite my love and passion for dentistry. When you’re talking to mentees, it reminds you of why you chose dentistry in the first place.”

“Once people started getting connected, they started asking about donating and whether it was a nonprofit,” Hishaw said. “Then I realized, I need to make this organized.” She called it Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, got the organization incorporated and formed a board of directors. The nonprofit took off from there, and now has 3,370 members and more than 100 mentees. In 2021, the group held its first in-person event for middle and high schoolers, where the students received hands-on experience in dentistry. They invited 30 students to attend the first year and 50 the following year. Although the organization is focused in Arizona, Hishaw’s vision is to one day have pockets of mentorship across the country. “Mentorship really did reignite my love and passion for dentistry,” Hishaw said. “When you’re talking to mentees, it reminds you of why you (chose dentistry) in the first place.”

Hishaw is proud of the programs and mentors who helped her get where she is today. Before she was a student at the School of Dentistry, she took part in the Summer Scholars program at the school, now called the STAHR program, which stands for Students Training in Academia, Health and Research. She used her experience with STAHR to help guide her while she was organizing her non-profit’s Youth Summit.

“In STAHR, we had experience with impressions, learning vocabulary and instrumentation,” Hishaw said. “We’re mirroring that, giving our students the same hands-on learning and giving them the realization that they too could be a dentist.”

Many of Hishaw’s former UMKC classmates are now a part of Diversity in Dentistry Mentorships, and some of her own mentors are still at UMKC, including John Cottrell, the school’s director of minority and special programs. While she was a student at UMKC, Hishaw said she was in Cottrell’s office probably every other week. He’s been a sounding board for many of the ideas she has surrounding her nonprofit.

While Hishaw is still a practicing pediatric dentist with multiple locations around Tucson, she acknowledges it’s her passion outside the dental office that’s kept her going.

“This helped me find true joy beyond the four walls of my practice,” Hishaw said. “Our identities as dentists are tied so tightly to being a a practice owner, it’s so important for us, as dentists, to have hobbies and outside interests.”

Ivy League alumnus
As dean of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, William V. Giannobile (D.D.S. ’91) doesn’t get to practice dentistry much anymore, but keeping up on those skills is still a priority.

“I consider myself a clinician scientist, really trying to bring together translating discovery or basic science into the clinic,” Giannobile said. “And it’s always been important, as a clinician scientist, to continue seeing patients.”

Since his time at UMKC, Giannobile has become a leader in periodontology, with research interests in regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and precision medicine. The seeds for his prestigious research career were planted during his time at the School of Dentistry, particularly by three of the school’s former faculty: Charles Cobb (D.D.S. ’64), J. David Eick and George Revere. During Giannobile’s second year in dental school, they urged him to take a research opportunity with the National Institutes of Health. They explained the research would not only help him with his current degree, but could also make him a pioneer in the field of dentistry.

“I was basically the first dental student (at UMKC) to engage in a combined D.D.S. program with a Master of Science in Oral Biology,” said Giannobile. “So, my time at UMKC was certainly a transformative experience that prepared me very well for my time at Harvard University.”

After graduation from UMKC, Giannobile earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a certificate in periodontology, both from Harvard, where he was also a faculty member for two years. He left Harvard for the University of Michigan, where he worked from 1998 to 2020. All the while, he continued to advance his research interests. Now that he’s back at Harvard, Giannobile is excited for his future research into patient stratification for losing teeth and using artificial intelligence to identify patients at risk of developing pain after certain dental procedures.

Giannobile is grateful for every opportunity that helped create his path forward.

“When I look back, I feel blessed at how many doors have opened in my career and enabled me to do so many different things,” said Giannobile, who is from St. James, Missouri. “Growing up on the farmlands of Missouri, I never thought I would be able to travel internationally to collaborate on my work.”

Business-minded dental innovator
Nathan Suter (D.D.S. ’13) wears many hats in his dental career. As owner and clinician at Green Leaf Dental Care in House Springs, Missouri, he treats patients one day a week. The rest of the week is filled with his responsibilities as a small business owner, software developer, corporate executive, public health administrator and board member.

“What made me a little different than a traditional dental student was that I had a business degree coming into dental school, and that allowed me to see things differently,” Suter said. “I just like to solve problems. That’s probably the biggest thing.”

Suter began his dental career in a community health center, which ignited a passion for population health and strategizing to solve big issues that affect a lot of people. Outside of Green Leaf, he’s also the chief innovation officer for Enable Dental, where he oversees technology and quality assurance for the company, which provides portable dentistry for geriatric and special needs patients across the country.

Suter believes his rotations as a UMKC dental student opened his eyes to the full range of possibilities that come with a D.D.S. degree.

“I didn’t really know there was more to dentistry than private practice until I went on my rotations, and I started really liking public health,” Suter said. “That let me zoom out from looking at dentistry as the tooth and the person attached to it, (and start looking) at an entire population.”

For Suter’s third-year research project in dental school, he worked with Delta Dental, evaluating onsite dental care for companies in terms of portable dentistry and teledentistry. Through that work, he began to see patterns of disparity in dental check- ups related to levels of education.

Michael McCunniff (D.D.S. ’83), who was UMKC School of Dentistry’s department chair in Dental Public Health and Behavioral Sciences at the time, helped Suter realize the broader public health ramifications of his research.

By making dentistry more accessible through portability and teledentistry, dentists can break down some of the societal barriers to oral health care. That research became the catalyst for Suter’s consulting work, as many dentists began reaching out to him about the different ways to utilize portable equipment and teledentistry. He also worked with Delta Dental (he is a current board member) to develop software for clinic care coordination specific to dentistry. Enable Dental would go on to acquire that software and bring him on in his current executive role.

Suter’s advice for his fellow alumni is to expand their network beyond the dental clinic.

“Have the courage to put yourself in a room where you’re the only dentist,” Suter said. “Offer yourself up, create a space to listen and see what opportunities come.”