Nicholas Rodriguez hails from the border community of McAllen, a great place to grow up, but one also beset by high rates of poverty and poor health. The South Texas community is never far from his mind. Rodriguez’s desire to give back inspired him to become a dentist, and study public health. Now, he’s a third-year dental student in UTHealth School of Public Health’s new D.D.S./M.P.H. program in Houston, and an active student leader — most notably serving as current president-elect of the National Student Research Group of the American Association for Dental Research. He plans to graduate next spring.
Why did you decide to become a dentist?
After I graduated from high school, I went to Baylor University, where I graduated with a degree in biology in 2014. While I was at Baylor, I had a strong interest in the health care field, and had the opportunity to shadow a dentist.
I liked the fact that in dentistry, you have an immediate impact on people’s health — from both a medical and aesthetic perspective. You can make a big difference in their health, appearance, and how they feel about themselves. Dentistry is also one of those fields that allows you to do a lot of community service. You can help others through missions, or in your community. I also liked the work-life balance that dentists have, compared to other health care professions.
Why did you choose to get a Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) degree?
While I was in dental school, I was interested in working with children. In order to make a bigger impact, I felt that learning more information about public health, and epidemiology in particular, would be very beneficial. If I wanted to conduct a research study one day, I could use that general knowledge to reach out to communities in a more effective way. I have a strong passion for pediatrics, so my current plan is to pursue a pediatric dental residency after graduation, and use it together with my M.P.H. to better impact the community.
How have you been able to apply your public health experience to your dental training?
I have had the opportunity to conduct quite a bit of research. I’m working with Ana Neumann (director of dental public health at the UTHealth School of Dentistry) on health literacy rates in Houston through questionnaires, surveying how well people understand oral health, and what we teach them about brushing and flossing.
My public health training in epidemiology gives me a better understanding of study design, and the certain types of biases that may come into play. It makes me a better researcher and a clinician, and gives me a better understanding of the population I’m studying. It helps me understand the data on a people level, rather than just seeing them as statistics.
Also, I find that in many of my public health classes, I have to frequently express ideas and concepts in writing. My training is helping me convey complex ideas, and better communicate treatment plans to patients in the clinic.
Tell us about your leadership roles.
As president elect, and president next year, for the National Student Research Group, I oversee the spokespersons for dental student research. I have really enjoyed it. Research is such a vital part of what we do as clinicians. We won’t see treatment advances if we don’t work to promote research.
I also work to promote dental health in the Hispanic community as a student trustee on the board of the Hispanic Dental Association, and president of the Hispanic Dental Association at the School of Dentistry. It is a great opportunity to do community service and oral health instruction, and increase awareness of oral health in the Hispanic community.
And I’m leadership development chair at the School of Dentistry. We work with students to develop leadership qualities, and teach them skills they need after they graduate, such as how to be better business-minded dentists.
What have been some highlights of your training?
I love the excitement and joy of treating people, the gratitude on their faces, and the satisfaction that comes with helping them. It’s powerful when you have skills and can make an impact on their lives.
I really love working with kids in the community. When go to an elementary school bringing toothbrushes and toothpaste — there is nothing like seeing the positive reaction from the students. We have the opportunity to go to lower income areas. Some of these kids may have never received a toothbrush before. There’s quite a bit of satisfaction when you can have a long-term impact on health and change habits in positive directions.
What’s your plan for the future?
My aspiration is to go into pediatric dentistry. I would eventually like to open up or contribute to a nonprofit that would help kids that can’t afford dental care. There are many underrepresented communities that need some special attention.
After graduating, I would like to establish myself in an area in Texas that lends itself to being active in my community and profession, and potentially in academia as well. That’s where I feel the public health aspect of my training comes into play. Learning about subjects like such as management, health care organizations, and population health, helps you see the bigger picture.
What do you do like to do in your free time?
I’m a huge outdoors person. And I love photography. Any time I have the opportunity, I like to go hiking and backpacking. I love going with some friends for a backpacking weekend, and getting away from the city for a bit. I also play guitar and saxophone. I play with a group of students (at the “TMC Together” worship night, a worship night organized by students involved in healthcare in the Texas Medical Center). I use music and the outdoors a way to refresh from studying and work. They’re a great outlet.
— Interview by Anissa Anderson Orr