(Originally published in Interdisciplinary MPH Program Alumni and Student News, Spring 2012)
Baharak Amanzadeh DDS, MPH ’10 writes: “My public health path has always had a touch of magic. You don’t hear people say that about public health very often, but it’s true. When I applied for the Interdisciplinary MPH at UC Berkeley, I had some thoughts about my goals, but had no idea that I would end up doing exactly what I had wished I could do. As a dentist, an artist, and a single mom who loves children, I came to my MPH looking for a career that would somehow connect the different dots of my background and dreams to create an image of improving health and well-being. And that is what has happened.
“When Nap [Hosang, Interdisciplinary MPH program head] first asked me, ‘So, what do you want to do?’ I tried to picture what it would look like. Of course, I wanted to be innovative. I had some ideas about designing and implementing preventive dental treatments targeting children and their families. I was also very interested in global health and in approaches that would frame dental health in the context of general health. Now, two years later, I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do.
“How did I get here? When I was applying to the MPH at Berkeley, I’d been practicing dentistry in California for six or seven years. At the end of the day, I knew how many teeth I’d drilled and filled but I didn’t know how much I impact I’d had on the overall health of the community. Children would come in with dental pain and infection and I would treat them as best I could. But I knew those children would experience the same problems again. I knew there would be sleepless nights and befuddled days because of toothaches. I knew their families would experience the same endless difficulties in accessing care, and many families would experience the same thing. Also, I knew that it was all preventable.
“Searching for an answer, my MPH mantra became: ‘Understand deeply, before planning to do anything.’ So ethnography, qualitative research, community-based participatory research and intervention design became the focus of my efforts. I soon realized I had another mission—to communicate the importance of oral health to my colleagues from other disciplines. I got better at framing my oral health arguments, but at times my times my voice would still shake in the face of more life-threatening health issues. ‘You’re just talking about teeth, right?’
“These conversations helped me tremendously in defining my area of research. I study the impact of diet and nutrition on oral health, and most recently collaborated on a qualitative study on the effects of food, drink, and snack advertisements on oral health in El Salvador. There’s an entire industry out there trying to convince us to make poor nutrition choices. Choices that affect not only our oral health, but also our health overall.
“After completing my MPH, I was accepted by UCSF’s residency in dental public health, where I have been working closely with CAN DO—the Center to Address Disparities in Children’s Oral Health—and the amazing scientists working in the field. We work closely with organizations in dental public health. I enjoy being involved in policy development, collaboration with the Department of Public Health, program planning and education, and public health research. Following my residency, more magic happened with an opportunity to join the faculty at UCSF. It has been about six months since I joined the School of Dentistry in the Division of Oral Epidemiology and Dental Public Health, where my time is split between research, public health projects, and teaching. As one would expect, most of my activities have a community-based participatory twist—for example, an inter-professional partnership with the School of Nursing to support school-based health centers in Oakland.
“I still see myself at the beginning of my path and there’s a lot to learn, but I’m determined to push the boundaries in whatever I do. Even as I write this article I’m on my way to a conference on Art and Health, where they will be screening a short film on dance and disability that I made with an MPH colleague for one of our classes. Looking ahead, I hope to explore new ways to blend my artistic inclinations with my career in dental public health. While there are a lot of uncertainties along this magical path of mine, two questions will always be constant: How am I improving people’s health, and is it the best I can do? I inherited this questioning perspective from my wonderful mentors—especially Nap and Jaspal Sandhu. Thank you!”