A Journey into Public Health

Focused on Change

Henal Gandhi, MPH, MDS pictured.
Alumna Henal Gandhi, MPH, MDS

Henal Gandhi, MPH, MDS, recently graduated from the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health with a Master of Public Health (MPH) in Epidemiology. She completed her MDS in Pediatric Dentistry in India in 2018 and practiced in Qatar for two years before moving to the U.S. to earn her MPH. But dentistry wasn't the obvious career path at first. "It wasn't my top career choice. I was nudged into this profession by my family," Gandhi reflects. However, it was during undergraduate studies in dental surgery that her enthusiasm for pediatric dentistry ignited. "I discovered my passion for pediatric dentistry—a field that is not just about the science of oral health care, but also about the art of nurturing young smiles." 

Gandhi found a natural aptitude for pediatric dentistry. "I have always loved kids," she explains. "Connecting with my young patients and ensuring their dental experiences were positive and fear-free became incredibly satisfying." Witnessing the relief on both the child's and parent's faces after alleviating discomfort and pain solidified Gandhi's dedication to the field.  

Driven to make a broader impact, Gandhi pursued her Master’s in epidemiology at the School of Public Health. "My passion for public health was ignited as a dental student in India," she explains. "I observed firsthand the devastating impact of socio-economic disparities on oral and systemic health."  

The dire effects of neglected oral health in underserved communities prompted Gandhi to focus on preventive healthcare. "My interest deepened in pediatric epidemiology and maternal and child health," she notes. Through rigorous academic training and innovative research, Gandhi aimed to address the complex health challenges vulnerable populations face. 

Gandhi's research journey began during postgraduate studies in pediatric dentistry. "We were challenged to develop innovative solutions to alleviate dental fear among children," she recalls. This led to groundbreaking projects like AuSFIn (Audio Sensory Feedback Interface), a modified electronically powered soft toy designed to make dental visits less intimidating, and an Android application designed to serve a dual purpose: facilitating intra-procedural communication between the child and the dentist and providing a distraction to help the child remain calm during dental procedures. 

Her thesis work delved into developing mucoadhesive patches using patented probiotic strains. "The aim was to develop a solution to keep dental cavity-causing bacteria low in hospitalized children and those with special health care needs, for whom maintaining oral hygiene can be challenging," Gandhi explains. The pharmaceutical company that provided the probiotic blend is now working on developing a marketable product using this idea.  

“During my MPH in epidemiology courses, I was lucky to continue my research in pediatric health through Texas CARES and my practicum at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry. During my practicum, I was privileged to get an opportunity to conduct a study in collaboration with the U.S. national leaders in patient safety monitoring and evaluation. I authored the paper presenting the study's findings which was published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, one of their most-read papers 2023.”  Gandhi explains.  

Gandhi’s research efforts extended into public health, contributing to understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic through initiatives like Texas CARES, where she started as a graduate research assistant in 2021. After completing her MPH in Epidemiology in May of 2023, Gandhi joined Texas CARES full-time post-graduation in July 2023.  

Gandhi is a research assistant III with Texas CARES, a DSHS-funded state-wide COVID-19 antibody seroprevalence study with over 90,000 participants aged six months to 90 years. Her work involves utilizing geographic information systems to identify participation barriers and spearheading initiatives like Texas CARES Kids. 

Looking ahead, Gandhi is committed to pediatric epidemiology, aiming to inform policy and practice to improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations. Her goal is to position herself as a public health analyst and epidemiologist who contributes to the scientific community through impactful research and influences public health strategies and interventions. She aims to become a leader in the field, advocating for evidence-based approaches to enhance the well-being of children with special healthcare needs. 

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