Time races along. This issue marks a clean decade since the debut of the Lucy Hobbs Awards in 2013—a project initiated to honor and celebrate the varied contributions of women in dentistry. This year’s honorees, just like their predecessors, are setting new standards in clinical care, innovation, mentoring and more—and each weighs in on how dentistry (and her professional experience) has changed over the last 10 years.
Woman to Watch
City: Vancouver, British Columbia
Education: Manipal College of Dental Sciences, Manipal, India; DDS, the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine; certified lactation counselor
Names of Practices: Playtime Pediatric Dentistry; ABC Dental
Specialty: Pediatric dentistry
ARE CHOCOLATES or Starburst better for kids’ teeth? How to choose your child’s dentist by their first birthday. The pros and cons of pacifiers. These exemplify the creative, helpful advice that Dr. Nidhi Kotak—@BabyToothDentist to her 22,000 Instagram followers—shares on the social platform.
She’s pretty much the definition of an unqualified social success, but when she initially explored an Instagram presence early in the pandemic, Dr. Kotak evinced some trepidation. “I wondered, will other professionals or parents find it unprofessional if a doctor is on social media, dancing and making [dental education] look fun?”
The unprecedented ability social media provided to reach and educate countless numbers around the world about children’s oral health, however, revealed a need and quashed Dr. Kotak’s doubts. “Every week I get parents asking me questions [on Instagram],” she says. “The advice I can give is limited, but I always encourage them to see a dentist in their city.”
Being helpful is old hat for Dr. Kotak, whose career has traversed five countries, including missions in Kenya and her native India. (Ever the globetrotter, she recently moved from the Philadelphia area to western Canada.) While in residency at Temple University, she got additional training to become a certified lactation counselor after encountering many young mothers whose newborns had tongue and lip ties.
She credits trailblazers both historic (Lucy Hobbs) and contemporary (the largely female faculty at Temple Hospital’s pediatric dental residency program) for paving her way. “Ten years ago, a lot of the faces we saw were men’s,” she says, thinking back to the beginning of the Lucy Hobbs Project. “As a woman, I always wondered, is this appropriate for me?”
That narrow perspective is now long gone, Dr. Kotak says, a productive absence that fuels her drive to serve parents and young patients, regardless of the medium. “If you have the knowledge and the tools to share, don’t look back.”
City: Rosenberg, Texas
Education: DDS, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Dentistry
Name of Practice: KRB Dentistry
Specialty: General dentistry
AS AN IMMIGRANT from India and a Muslim who covers her head, Dr. Kauser Bari is no stranger to cocked eyebrows and glass ceilings. Her relentless drive to serve others, though, has enabled her to surmount all skepticism.
Raised by her mother, a physician in India and a stout role model for young Kauser, Dr. Bari became fascinated by health care (and community service) from an early age. When she arrived in Baltimore at age 8, though, she had to juggle her faith and culture with the societal norms of her new home. “I understood my position in society,” she says, “and came to terms [with the fact that] I needed to work harder to achieve my ambitious goal of becoming a doctor.”
Now, with 24 years in practice, the owner and clinical director of KRB Dentistry is known as a bright light and a prized mentor in her community. Fluent in English, Spanish and Urdu, Dr. Bari spends her days using a gentle hand to treat children, the dental-phobic and those less fortunate—whether quelling anxious nerves through song, relieving postprocedural stress with a soothing massage or finding creative ways
to help patients deal with the financial burden of treatment.
She supports more than patients, overseeing younger colleagues struggling with complicated cases or seeking innovative ways to offer care to a diverse patient base. Her compassion doesn’t wane when she leaves work: She’s active in helping rekindle the notion of service-based care in third- and fourth-year dental students; she volunteers in local clinics; and she provides dental care in Mexico via yearly missions. Driven by her deep faith and her values, she hopes to instill a similar passion for service in the next generation.
All told, Dr. Bari has seen dentistry come a long way in the past decade, not only from the standpoint of science and technology but in terms of professional opportunities for women and minorities. “Today I can be unapologetically true to my identity and practice with confidence,” she says, “delivering care with empathy based in faith, humility and honor.”
City: Monroe Township, New Jersey
Education: DDS, Columbia University College
of Dental Medicine
Name of Practice: Prospect Oral Surgery Center
Specialty: Oral and maxillofacial surgery
AUTHOR, SPEAKER, educator, diversity-and-inclusion advocate, proponent for women’s leadership in health care—Dr. Cathy Hung’s career bona fides could fill this entire issue. (Indeed, she has been no stranger to these pages over the years.)
It hasn’t been an easy journey for this board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon, who was born and raised in Taiwan. Early in her career, Dr. Hung found few resources for guidance. “When I was in residency, I didn’t know about identity threat, microaggressions or implicit bias,” she says. “That talk almost didn’t exist [in health care].”
Female oral and maxillofacial surgeons make up only about 10 percent of the specialty. Dr. Hung was the first bilingual female Taiwanese oral and maxillofacial surgeon in New Jersey, where she runs her private practice, Prospect Oral Surgery Center. “I don’t look like a typical surgeon. There’s constant questioning,” she says, noting pointedly that such inquiries comes from patients and colleagues alike.
Her experience made her realize that the profession needed better communication tools. “I wanted to tell people who are in my shoes and being questioned—younger practitioners, female practitioners—that [they] are not alone.”
To amplify her message, in 2020 Dr. Hung published Pulling Wisdom: Filling the Gaps in Cross-Cultural Communications for Healthcare Professionals. She contributes to several industry publications, including the ADA’s New Dentist blog; is designing a handbook to encourage women to consider a career in dentistry; and mentors women and minority professionals as a certified life coach.
She has, she acknowledges, seen considerable progress in the last decade-plus, including the oft-cited fact that women now outnumber men in dental school enrollment. But change has come slowly. Doing more, she notes, doesn’t have to mean going big and trying to effect systemic improvements all at once: “If you can help 1 percent of the time, in a small, big or whichever way, just try to do that.”
Vladana Babcic Tal
City: Chicago, Illinois
Education: DMD, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine; M.A. in medical science and MPH in international public health, Boston University School of Medicine; advanced specialty
endodontics, University of Illinois Chicago College of Dentistry
Name of Practice: Cameo Dental Specialists
INTELLIGENT, business-minded, mentor: These were just a few of the words the person who nominated her for this award used to describe Dr. Vladana Babcic Tal. For good reason, too. The endodontist joined Cameo Dental Specialists in Chicago—known as Cameo Endodontics at the time—in 2012 as its first female partner. She has since been instrumental in expanding the practice to five locations and pioneering its integrated oral health care model, which includes periodontal and oral surgery.
“I was the only woman in a sea of men,” Dr. Babcic says of those early days. “They treated me as an equal and supported me, both clinically and when I would present business ideas and goals.” How have things changed in the decade since? “Today half the doctors in our practice are women.”
Cameo recently teamed with Specialized Dental Partners (SDP), a Nashville-based organization, to fortify the expansion of integrated care to practices nationwide. “I’m passionate about our integrated care model and thrilled we were lucky enough to find a partner like SDP,” Dr. Babcic says.
An increased ability to provide patients with broader access to treatment is just one of the ways she has seen the industry evolve in the last decade. “Dentistry is living its best life,” she exults. “Technology has made us expert diagnosticians, and the success rates in endodontics are the best we’ve had. There’s no better time to have a toothache.”
Aside from her work, Dr. Babcic’s primary passion is her family; she’s the mother of three daughters. “I believe you can have it all—just not at once,” she says. “When I’m seeing patients, I put all my energy into those procedures and allow others to help at home. When I’m with my daughters, I give them the same respect and undivided attention. I allowed myself to stop feeling guilty for being a working mom. I hope my daughters will think I’m a badass one day.”
Karen Kandel Conn
City: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Education: DMD, University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine; M.S. in oral biology, Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry
Name of Practice: Bryn Mawr Orthodontics
DR. KAREN KANDEL CONN experienced a transformative moment in the seventh grade: She had her braces removed. Decades later—although the board-certified orthodontist, who specializes in braces and Invisalign, is on the other side of the chair—the feeling never gets old.
“There’s nothing better than that moment when a teenager or adult gets their braces off,” she says. “I get to see the physical and emotional impact…. It’s exhilarating and gratifying every time.”
Lauded for treating extraordinarily complex cases and delivering high-quality outcomes, Dr. Conn has been recognized as a Top Dentist by Philadelphia magazine, a Top Orthodontist in Suburban Family—and as one of America’s finest dentists under age 40 in Incisal Edge.
This past summer, she became co-owner of a new tech-forward practice in the Philadelphia suburbs. The technological evolution of the past decade, Dr. Conn says, has utterly transformed orthodontics, rendering patient treatment “quicker and more comfortable” and providing “a better, more personalized experience.”
Another change on a much more personal level was becoming the mother of two children. “When people ask my 4-year-old daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she says ‘I want to be an orthodontist like Mommy and work in the chair next to her,’ ” Dr. Conn says. “Whether her wish comes true or not, I’m driven to be a role model for her so that she has the confidence and perseverance to fulfill her dreams and become a strong woman.”
City: Boca Raton, Florida
Education: DMD, Boston University Henry M. Goldman
School of Dental Medicine; M.S. in health care management, Harvard University
Affiliation: Sage Dental Management
Specialty: General dentistry
THE NARRATIVE reads like a bad joke: Fifty people go to 50 dentists and receive 50 different treatment plans. Pervasive industry inconsistencies like these, reported time and again, troubled Dr. Cindy Roark for years. “We owe patients the same version of the truth,” she says. “If it’s decay in Georgia, it should be decay in Florida.”
Driven to do right by patients, as senior vice president and chief clinical officer of Sage Dental Management, Dr. Roark has found herself at the forefront of the artificial intelligence revolution in dentistry to improve both the patient experience and overall treatment outcomes, lending a sense of predictability to what can often seem chaotic.
One milestone so far: implementing an AI-enabled business intelligence solution across 83 practices in Florida and Georgia, helping improve diagnostic consistency for patients and boost their understanding. Like the 19-year-old with searing pain who could see decay on an X-ray, thanks to computer vision, and proceeded with the recommended treatment (as opposed to the original request to “just pull it!”). Dr. Roark also helped Sage Dental become one of the first DSOs to offer teledentistry, an utter game changer during the pandemic.
Her fearless rush to the future has also included getting creative with staffing and embracing providers who need flexible schedules. She has seen that perspective drastically shift throughout the industry over the last decade. “My role is an opportunity,” she says, “because I ‘get it’ differently.”
What excites her most about the future of the profession? The way technologies such as AI and teledentistry can move the needle in a big way—from bringing care to independent living facilities, where residents average 10 years between dental visits, to public schools to ensure that all kids have access to dental care in their crucial formative years. “I’m really excited about where technology can take the industry,” Dr. Roark says. “I think it’s time to see dentistry head down that path.” She’s one of the primary people leading the way.
Benco Dental Trailblazer
City: South Lyon, Michigan
Affiliation: Benco Dental
Position: Territory Representative, Great Lakes Region
WHAT GOES AROUND comes around—but in the case of Threasa Liddell, that’s a good thing. Liddell, who has been with Benco Dental for 21 years, was honored as a Lucy Hobbs Trailblazer back in 2016. At the time, we lauded her for her work—then 10 years running—as the organizer of an annual Women in Dentistry symposium in partnership with a dental lab not far from her headquarters in Novi, Michigan, near Detroit.
“I know a lot of female doctors who have gotten out of school in the last five or 10 years who want to become business owners,” she told us back then. “In the past, a lot wanted to be associates, but more and more, women are wanting to take on leadership roles.”
Liddell has only accelerated her efforts in the years since: This past October, she hosted her seventeenth annual Women in Dentistry event at the Schoolcraft Vistatech Center in Livonia, southeast of Novi. (“Save the date for this year: Friday, October 20, 2023, same location,” she notes.)
It’s all in a day’s work for this tireless advocate of women in dentistry, who is past president (and current education chair) of the Michigan Dental Assistant Association. Her laurels don’t end there: She’s on the board of directors for the Gary Burnstein Free Medical & Dental Clinic in Pontiac, which for the past seven years has hosted an “Esteemed Women of Michigan” event celebrating successful local businesspeople. She’s on the advisory board for the dental assisting program at Washtenaw Community College, as well as the advisory board for The Dental Advisor in Ann Arbor (helmed by 2019 Lucy Hobbs Clinical Expertise honoree Dr. Sabiha Bunek), for which she evaluates new products.
It all adds up to a commitment to the profession that’s fitting for this tireless champion of the Lucy Hobbs Project. “I’ve been fortunate to work with many amazing women over the years,” Liddell says. “I’ve helped them start study clubs and have supported local dental societies.” She cites the Oakland County Dental Society near her home, which recently launched its own Woman in Dentistry program and award. She sponsors its annual meeting and is on its 2023 planning committee as well. Exhausting? Sure. But true commitment always is.