Student Spotlight: Stephanie Tom DMD 25 Places in National Essay Contest
Your health starts in your mouth.
That bold, attention-grabbing line helped Stephanie Tom DMD 25 become one of the three runners-up in the 2022 American Dental Association’s Health Literacy in Dentistry Essay Contest.
Tom said she was delighted that her interpretation of the prompt “Not Just Teeth: Why the Dental Team Is Essential for My Overall Health” was selected by the GSDM committee to represent the school in the content – and then that her essay was chosen as a winner by the ADA. This is the second year in a row that a GSDM student authored one of the winning essays in the American Dental Association (ADA) contest.
“It was a really pleasant surprise to place,” Tom said. “It was an honor to be nominated and recognized…It was nice to have my efforts and the efforts of the school and our committee recognized for all the work that we put into it.”
In her essay, Tom explored the oral-systemic connection, and how the lines between oral health and general health are blurred. She wrote that a dental team is essential for both oral and general health because a dental team is trained in health interconnectivity, allowing them to prevent and catch oral problems early and treat them before they develop into more serious health issues.
“They’re so interconnected that you can’t really look at one without the other being affected,” Tom said. “Changes to one affects the other… the whole purpose of this essay was to realize that there are two separate concepts, but they’re just so interrelated that you can’t see one without the other.”
Tom’s undergraduate degree was in nutritional sciences, and she enjoyed pulling that background into her essay, by emphasizing how maintaining a well-balanced diet is important to one’s overall health. She wrote that limiting alcohol and sugary foods/drinks, as well as the proper intake of vitamins, helps improve both oral and general health.
“It’s like it was meant for me in a weird way that I was able to combine my background and my passion for overall health through nutrition and my career now in dentistry and how they’re so interrelated,” Tom said. “I think this has always been something that was a passion of mine, connecting overall health with oral health. And so, the opportunity to take this prompt and be able to run with it was right up my alley.”
Dr. Meredith Bailey, Massachusetts Dental Society president, said she is pleased that Tom’s analysis on the importance of the oral-systemic connection received national attention.
“Stephanie is to be commended for sharing her voice on this important topic and for achieving this national award,” said Bailey, who is also a clinical instructor of general dentistry and group practice leader at GSDM, said.
One of the biggest challenges Tom faced while writing the paper was articulating big-picture concepts while abiding by the 700-word limit. However, she said that practicing breaking down these concepts into concise, layperson-friendly language will help her immensely post-graduation in the dental field.
“As a future dentist, when speaking to the general patient or anyone who comes into the office, they’re not going to necessarily understand all the different technical terms,” Tom said. “Participating in this competition definitely was challenging but [it] allowed me to develop these skills that I think would be important for future practice for myself and just in general to be able to communicate knowledge that we know to help the average person improve their oral health or systemic health.”
As a member of the GSDM essay selection committee, Kathy Lituri, clinical assistant professor of health policy & health services research, said Tom has been a “pleasure to work with” and she enjoys seeing the passion that Tom takes in her work.
Lituri said she appreciates that ADA emphasizes health literacy and person-centered language and encourages dental students to strengthen their skills when participating in the essay contest. The skillset of being able to talk to the public in a way that is easy to understand will help build patient trust.
“In Global and Population Health, we live and breathe health literacy, and we try to instill it in the students, so it’s really important to us,” Lituri said. “Having students that are interested in it, and interested in the contest, and interested in doing this is really important.”
Tom encouraged her fellow dental students to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to them throughout their time at GSDM, because they never know where it might lead.
“I took this opportunity to get into it, to try it, to write an essay, because it’s something I was interested in, something I liked, and I didn’t expect anything out of it,” Tom said. “I was really just as a personal challenge and so for it to pan out the way it did, it was really, really rewarding.”