Into India to Teach and Heal
by Mary Ann Littell
t first glance, it would seem that Drs. Asha Samant and Rebecca Reed have little in common. Their backgrounds are very different: Samant is originally from India, while Reed hails from Montclair, NJ. They’re both on the faculty at UMDNJ-New Jersey Dental School (NJDS), but in different departments: Samant is an associate professor of prosthodontics and Reed is an assistant professor of community dentistry. Samant has many years of work behind her, while Reed is considered “young faculty.”
They met not long ago in the halls of NJDS, and despite their dissimilarities, a friendship blossomed. “We just sort of clicked,” says Samant.
It turns out the two have many interests in common. Both share a love of teaching. They’re good at it, too. Samant, who joined the NJDS faculty in 1981, is a three-time recipient of the school’s Excellence in Teaching award and a member of the UMDNJ Master Educators Guild. She chooses not to have a faculty practice, instead devoting her time to teaching and research, where one area of interest is women’s oral health. Reed, who’s been at the dental school for three years, has also made her mark in the classroom. She recently received the Faculty Award, presented for teaching and educational support, from the Student National Dental Association, the minority student organization at NJDS.
The two also share a vision of helping the underserved. Samant’s commitment to this cause goes back to her roots. She visits India at least once a year to speak at conferences on many topics, including geriatric dentistry, women’s oral health and the challenges of advancing dental care in remote villages.
Reed, who also holds a master’s degree in public administration, focuses her community service efforts closer to home. She’s interested in the issue of parent education and how it impacts children’s oral health. One of her recent projects was an oral health assessment for Head Start in Paterson. She surveyed the parents and found that many didn’t know when to start taking their children to see a dentist. They assumed that children who still had their baby teeth did not need dental care.
“By educating the parents, we’re able to have a positive effect on the children’s dental outcomes later on,” she says.
Reed is also involved with the “Give Kids a Smile” program, an annual event at NJDS. This year, some 850 children from the Newark area visited the school for dental care, including examinations, x-rays, cleaning, fillings, fluoride treatments and extractions. Some 250 faculty, staff, dental and hygiene students participated, as well as dentists from surrounding communities. For many of the children, it was their first experience in the dentist’s chair.
Reed encourages her students to become involved in community health. They volunteer for “Give Kids A Smile” and other activities unrelated to dentistry, such as helping out at soup kitchens and nursing homes. She also organized a group of students to feed the homeless at the Goodwill Rescue Mission in Newark. “We all need to give back,” says Reed. “It’s important to interact with your community. You start by volunteering in your own neighborhood, and then you branch out to other areas.”
In February, Samant and Reed “branched out” all the way to India to share their knowledge with faculty and students at Indian dental schools. The main focus of their trip was the 59th Annual Indian Dental Conference in Punjab. Samant, the keynote speaker at the event, lectured on geriatric dentistry and prosthodontics. Reed presented a poster on her Head Start assessment.
How did the two colleagues come to travel together to such a far-off place? Both are active in several extracurricular activities, including the dental school’s committee on multicultural affairs, which sponsors, among other events, an Indian Heritage Day. Their mutual interests offered them an opportunity to continue their friendship. One day they had lunch in Edison, which has the largest Indian community in New Jersey. They browsed in shops selling colorful Indian saris and other goods.
Sensing Reed’s enthusiasm for all things Indian, Samant suggested that she come to India to speak at the conference. She knew that Reed’s specialty — community health dentistry — would be a topic of great interest. Reed jumped at the
So the two set off on their “excellent adventure.” They traveled separately, since Samant made a first stop at the Guru Gobind Singh Dental College in Gurgaon, where she lectured and participated in dental health screenings in remote communities.
“There are no dentists in these small villages, so the school sends teams out in vans to provide treatment,” she says. “No one pays anything.”
She explains that residents of the villages care for their teeth with twigs from the neem tree, sometimes called India’s “village pharmacy” because of its purported medicinal benefits. A chemical in the bark is believed to prevent tooth decay and periodontal disease. “People chew the twigs and swallow the extract, then brush their teeth with the chewed bark.” she says. “This is all they have. We bring them free toothbrushes, provide instruction for children and tell them we’ll be back in a few months to see them again.”
Samant and Reed later met up in Punjab for the conference. Samant is originally from Punjab and has many relatives in the area, so she and Reed stayed with family members. In their spare time, they took in the sights and sounds. Reed describes the experience as “phenomenal.”
Following the conference, the two visited the Mulana Azad Dental College in New Delhi, where they lectured on dental education in the U.S.
“When you travel to underdeveloped countries, you see that the people are hungry for knowledge,” Samant observes. “They grab you. Even ordinary speakers get huge crowds, standing room only. They want to learn what we know.”
Samant explains that dental education in India is very different from training in the U.S. The program lasts four years, but Indian students start earlier, graduating at age 22, ready to go to work. Most remain in the cities, going into private practice with an established dentist.
“In 1966, when I was in dental school, there were seven dental schools in India,” says Samant. “Today, there are 245 dental schools, so there’s actually a surplus of dentists. But few of them go outside the cities, where the need is great.”
The students were interested in learning about how dentistry is taught in the U.S. They did their own poster presentations as well. Reed recalls, “Their posters were quite informative and highly decorated, very colorful. Mine looked plain in comparison.”
Samant hopes to establish a formal exchange program between NJDS and an Indian dental school. “It would be a wonderful learning experience for all the students,” she says.
In the meantime, the two look forward to returning to India again next year to continue their mission of teaching and improving the health status of the underserved.