With Public Health In Mind

Many people quickly realize their inclination to health care, yet it often takes much longer to figure out their exact path. The same held true for Assistant Professor of Pediatric Dentistry Mary Beth Giacona, who was drawn to pre-med as early as in high school, majored in biology in college, but still wasn’t sure about her path. After graduation, she drove cross-country and began working in biotech in the Bay area. Then, wisdom found her while getting her wisdom teeth removed.

pic of mary giacona

“The oral surgeon was just so charismatic, and he was so funny and charming. It was the first time that I ever thought: what about dentistry?”

As things were back in the ’90s, she researched dentistry at a public library. She noticed the profession melded her love of health care and science with arts and crafts. Soon after, she enrolled in Columbia University College of Dental Medicine and became a pediatric dentist. Giacona’s career was primarily focused on private practice, but she always kept a foot in academics through volunteering at her alma mater. After selling her practice in 2015 and her children were grown, she wanted to put more emphasis on academics. That was when she joined Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM) as a part-time faculty in 2019. 

“I knew Rutgers’ excellent reputation as a dental school. I actually applied for residency here, but I stayed at Columbia,” she said. At RSDM, she started out with a day of teaching, but she has been gradually adding more days and hoping to reach four days this summer. “This is because of my experience once I got here; I was immediately embraced and welcomed completely into the Pediatric Department.”

While at RSDM, she pursued and completed a master’s in public health from Yale University to take her career to a new phase of establishing programs that can connect dentists with community children to preserve oral health while inspiring them about dentistry.

“I wanted to try to make a bigger impact with what I do and how I practice at the population level. There's so much need, and there could be such tremendous positive impact,” she said. “I have this ingrained inclination to focus on children because of all my training and being a mom. And just logically, prevention is easier than restoration and has to happen in childhood.”

She has been putting her new degree to use and making significant changes at RSDM. For instance, an extra credit project she did for a class during her master’s led to the implementation of teaching pediatric residents how to use slow-speed handpiece prophy for cleaning children's teeth. That’s the expectation in private practice, she noted. “It seems like a little thing, but it was a really big, big, big deal for me.”

Another big moment was when she proposed to have pediatric faculty come up with treatment plans and only channel complex ones to residents rather than having them do simple procedures that the faculty could quickly address. “It gives more opportunity to do the technical skills that you're supposed to learn in residency, more restorations, more extractions, or pulpotomies, and practicing our hand skills. And it helps to reduce the backlog.” When Dean Cecile A. Feldman supported this idea, Giacona felt like she was “on cloud nine.”

She is continuing to explore other ways she can get involved in the community, such as creating sealant programs at local schools.

“I've really come to appreciate when I voice opinions or suggestions for change based on that outsider perspective, they are not shut down,” she said. “They are welcomed and discussed and oftentimes actually implemented.”