Sara Daniel, D'20

Hometown: Miami, FL
Undergraduate Major: Biology, University of Miami
Why did you choose Penn Dental?: “The School was obviously incredibly dedicated to technology, and the students seemed so happy and well-adjusted.”

Making People Smile

Sara, whose family settled in Miami after coming to the United States from Haiti, grew up with a love of science. “I always knew I would do something in the medical field, I just wasn’t sure what,” she remembers. She spent her high school and college years shadowing healthcare professionals of all kinds, from an ob-gyn and a pharmacy technician to a general dentist and an orthodontist. When the time came to apply to schools, she had made her decision.

“Dentists seemed to have it all,” she says. “They actively use their hands all day. They get to interact one-on-one with patients. And they make people smile.”

Although she initially had doubts about getting into Penn Dental Medicine, which she knew was one of the most competitive schools in the country, her parents encouraged her to aim for the top.

“They always believed in me,” she says.

A Supportive Environment for Success

Sara ended up getting in to all ten schools she applied to, and after traveling around the country to attend interviews, she chose Penn Dental Medicine.

“When I visited, they were doing so many great renovations. They had just opened the virtual simulation lab, and they were the only school in the U.S to have one,” she says. “The School was obviously incredibly dedicated to technology.”

She was equally impressed by the students: “They seemed so happy and well-adjusted. That spoke volumes,” she remembers. “I chose dentistry because I thought it would offer me a great work-life balance, and I wanted the same from my dental school.”

Now in her fourth year, she has been surprised and gratified by the collaborative nature of the student experience. “We help each other with everything,” she says. “We have group chats to support each other and remind each other of deadlines. My classmates have been a huge part of my success here.”

In this supportive environment, Sara dove right into extracurricular activities. She became active in the campus chapter of the Student National Dental Association, which supports underrepresented dental students. The group works closely with the School’s Admissions Office to host minority students during the admissions process and stay in touch with those who enroll to make sure they feel safe and are thriving at Penn Dental Medicine.

A Champion for Patients with Special Needs

Sara also joined Penn’s chapter of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD), which promotes programs and policies to advance the care of patients with special needs. The group’s mission struck a personal chord with Sara—she has an uncle with autism, and her family has struggled to find good care for him.

“So many healthcare professionals react to him with insensitivity and frustration,” she says.

“Dentistry can be scary for the average patient, let alone for someone with special needs. We can take an active role to prevent dental care from becoming a traumatic experience for these patients.”

In her second year, Sara was vice president of AADMD, and last year, as president, she led the organization in attending walks and runs for people with disabilities and volunteering at Carousel House, a city-sponsored social and recreational program for Philadelphia residents with disabilities. The group also sponsored a course in the Selectives program, which offers elective mini-courses designed by students and faculty. The course, “Specialties and Special Needs,” featured practitioners in pediatric dentistry and oral medicine who discussed techniques for treating special needs patients.

“We learned that it’s important to be adaptable and willing to change our approach on the spot based on the needs of the patient. It’s also important for us to be very confident in our actions without rushing,” she says. The course also focused on how to build empathy and discussed the value of the “tell-show-do” model, which gives patients the time and information they need to feel comfortable with a procedure.

Sara and her fellow AADMD members are waiting for confirmation of another key project, a contract between Penn Dental Medicine and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children for a program that will bring dental students into schools for people with disabilities, where they will provide education on oral health. They hope to begin the innovative new program this fall.

“It’s important for all dental students, regardless of the specialty they pursue, to have experience with special needs patients,” says Sara, who plans to do a residency in orthodontics after graduation. “At some time in our practices, we will all treat people with special needs and have an opportunity to turn what might have been a bad experience into a good one.”

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