From Individuals to Communities: Two Fellows for Life extend their impact in the field of dentistry

July 3, 2019; By Jasmine E. Crenshaw

Bhakti Desai and Hamilton Behlen are both current UAB School of Dentistry students and two members of our 2017 Fellowship class who focused their projects on bettering oral health and nutritional knowledge among clients at local nonprofits. Bhakti completed her project with Cahaba Valley Health Care, where she was able to implement oral health education practices with the clients. Over 80 patients received counseling concerning their oral health as a result of her project. While Bhakti conducted her project at Cahaba Valley, Hamilton led cooking courses for student campers and their parents at the Norwood Resource Center for her project. Through her courses, campers’ nutritional knowledge was increased and a significant number of families cooked additional meals at home on a weekly basis. 

In honor of Oral Health Month last month, we caught up with both Bhakti and Hamilton to discuss the impact their Fellowship projects had on their academic careers, their current work, hope for their fields, and advice for new and prospective fellows. 

Bhakti discovered after working and listening to the concerns of her patients at Cahaba Valley that she wanted to work towards eliminating health disparities and on local health policy because “the health of a community and individual and an individual is made up by more than just access to healthcare”. She wrote an op-ed that was published in regarding the need for improved oral health policy at the end of her Fellowship year. Similar to Bhakti’s epiphany, Hamilton’s ASF year led her to become more interested in “organized dentistry” and how it addresses issues associated with disparities in dental care access. In this past year alone, Hamilton was able to take a course on organized dentistry and to understand more clearly the disparities of access to dental care in urban areas compared to rural areas. Both Fellows have strengthened their interests in public service because of their fellowship, with Bhakti getting involved with more community-based projects and Hamilton’s advocacy work on Capitol Hill with the American Student Dental Association at UAB. In addition to wanting to improve change in oral care, both Hamilton and Bhakti are currently wrapping up their final years at the School of Dentistry and will begin their respective residencies after graduating in May 2020.

When asked about the advice they would give to new Fellows, Bhakti charges new fellows with making a schedule, prioritizing the most important goals, and being intentional about tasks. She also encourages those who are considering applying for the 2020 Fellowship to do so if “there’s an inkling there within you to spark and affect change in your local community  if the thought of applying has even crossed your mind.” Hamilton has similar advice in suggesting to the Fellows that they would pick passion projects; during her time as a Fellow, she saw it as an opportunity to break away from her dental studies and to dive into the logistics of her Fellowship project. 

We asked the Fellows about the progress they are hoping will occur within their areas of interest in the next five to ten years. Bhakti wants progress to be made with our Medicaid system in the state and with extending oral health coverage to everyone, especially to adults over the age of 21. She also wants to see more program support for organizations like Cahaba Valley Health Care. Hamilton wants more engagement between young dentists and the communities they serve, and for recruiting more high schoolers to pursue dental and healthcare-related careers from rural communities.

Both Bhakti and Hamilton have embodied what this Fellowship means through their work, and we’re immensely proud of them both.