UW School of Dentistry

Program boosts disadvantaged students seeking health careers

The name has changed, but the goal remains the same: Prepare talented, disadvantaged and historically under-represented students for careers in dentistry and other health sciences.

What used to be known as the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) has been renamed the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) for 2017. And with the new name comes new partners.

At the University of Washington, the School of Public Health officially joins the program this academic year. For 27 consecutive years, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has funded the program at the UW, with the School of Dentistry officially joining the School of Medicine in 2006.

Students who will be college sophomores or juniors next fall may apply until March 1, 2017 for one of  the 80 slots in the program, which covers students’ costs for travel to Seattle, on-campus room and board, and a small stipend. In 2017, the program will run from June 18 through July 29. Students selected to participate in the program are low-income, first-generation college students, and/or from ethnic groups traditionally under-represented within professional programs in the health sciences.

Summer Health Professions Education Program
Under the direction of Dr. Bea Gandara (far left) of the Department of Oral Medicine, Summer Medical and Dental Education Program students gather in the School of Dentistry’s Simulation Laboratory. The program has been expanded and will now be known as the Summer Health Professions Education Program.

The students spend six weeks on campus taking instruction in the basic foundational sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), as well as statistics. They learn more about the social determinants of health and health disparities, and also undertake clinical shadowing and simulations to get a feel for the hands-on work of health sciences.

The program’s name was changed to reflect its expanded focus, officials say, with learning opportunities for students interested in careers in health professions including not only dentistry and medicine but nursing, pharmacy, physician assistants, and public health. In 2017, the program will be funded at the UW and 12 other U.S. sites.

“Since 1989, this program has provided opportunities for thousands of college students interested in a career in medicine and dentistry,” said Darrell G. Kirch, MD, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. “By expanding to additional health professions, this unique enrichment program will strengthen academic proficiency and career development opportunities for students underrepresented in the health professions and prepare them for a successful future in health professions schools.”

The program has been a solid asset in recruiting students from disadvantaged communities to the School of Dentistry, said Dr. Susan Coldwell, Associate Dean for Student Services and Admissions.

“We’ve made enrollment offers to eight SMDEP alumni this year, and since its inception here in 2006, we’ve generally enrolled at least one or two alumni each year,” she said. Since 2006, at least 25 UW SMDEP alumni have enrolled at dental schools, 17 of them at the UW, she said.

In all, nearly 3,000 students have participated in the program at the UW, and one-third of them report pursuing medical or dental school, said Danielle Ishem of the UW Center for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, who serves as SHPEP’s director.

“By enrolling disadvantaged students early in their college years, we can intervene to improve their performance in STEM courses, such as biology, chemistry, and physics,” Dr. Coldwell said. “And regardless of whether they go on to dental or medical school, that early intervention improves their performance in these subjects, which can pay off in other ways.”

“It was a very good experience,” said SMDEP alumna Alba Weaver, who is now a second-year UW dental student. “I had the opportunity to meet very nice people and get to know some of the dental faculty members. I had organic chemistry, biostatistics, microbiology, and other classes that help me expand my views, especially about cultural diversity and problems affecting underserved populations.”

“This was the first time I experienced hands-on dentistry,” Weaver said, recalling her experiences in the school’s Simulation Laboratory during a suturing and waxing workshop. “I remember so vividly how awkward it was trying to hold the waxing and suturing instruments. It definitely took some practice! It was such a fun experience, though.”

Weaver added, “The networking part was very helpful because it allowed me to keep in touch with people who have helped me through this journey, such as Dr. [Beatrice] Gandara [of the Department of Oral Medicine]. Also, being able to gain insight into the life of a dental student was very helpful.”

One of the program’s biggest benefits is the sense of community the students derive, Dr. Coldwell said.

“They learn they’re not alone. Sometimes students from under-served communities can feel isolated in a big-college setting. But with SHPEP, they reside in the UW dorms for six weeks, during which they bond with students from similar backgrounds. That’s very empowering. In addition, they receive support through mentoring,” she said.

“I have always thought that dentistry is such a noble profession, and I am so glad that I am pursuing this as a career,” Weaver said. “I love the fact that the School of Dentistry focuses its efforts in helping and contributing to our community in very meaningful ways.”