Did you always want to be a dentist?
It was just an interest of mine when I was a kid. I would sit the neighborhood kids down in our green recliner chair in the basement and take their primary teeth out — I don’t know if their parents appreciated that. But honestly, when I was a kid, I had horrible dental experiences. The dentist that we had was really kind of mean. I always had the thought that I could do better than that.
Has faith always played a big role in your life?
I was raised Catholic, although my family was basically a “Chreaster” (Christmas and Easter) kind of family. As I got older, even in eighth grade, going through the sacraments and especially Confirmation, I felt a really strong connection to Catholicism and I began going to church pretty much every week, even without my family. It’s been a huge part of my life ever since.
How does your faith interact with your work as a dentist?
My faith informs my whole life, but certainly throughout my career, I felt like there was that obligation to service. When I graduated dental school, I went into the Navy for three years as a dental officer, and this was in the early 1990s when the AIDS pandemic was huge. We had a lot of trainings on the oral manifestations of HIV, so I got really interested in that. When I got out of the Navy, I searched for an opportunity to work with HIV patients at a clinic that really served the underserved. I worked at the Spang Center for Oral Health in Chicago, so that was kind of my first experience working with that type of a population.
When did you begin service work abroad?
I first went to the Dominican Republic in 2003, bringing groups of dental students, when Fr. Oriol Regales was the pastor at our sister parish there, La Sagrada Familia. The needs are overwhelming down there — there’s a lot of sugar-cane ingestion, there was really no access to any sort of oral hygiene products at the time, and they really didn’t have any community care available. We went a total of six different times to provide care once a year, and as we were doing that, the local dentists started to volunteer with us. We were able to start a small clinic, and now the local dentists provide regular care at that clinic.
How did you end up working with refugees in Tanzania?
The American Dental Association was looking for dentists to volunteer and go to Tanzania to set up a dental education program, to teach the refugee camp healthcare providers how to provide basic dental emergency care. Refugee camps range in population usually from around 50 to 100,000 people, so you can imagine the need, and dental care is not usually on their radar — they have to prioritize food, shelter, safety, medical care. We taught them how to do basic things, how to prescribe antibiotics, how to assess, how to do very simple extractions.
Do you have any non-tooth-related hobbies?
I play the flute in the Milwaukee American Legion Band, and I’ve been with them for almost 20 years. I also love marine biology and I have volunteered with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago doing shark conservation research on their research vessel in the Bahamas, which is really, really cool and fun. I did a whale shark research trip this summer with MarAlliance, trying to figure out where the whale shark populations are shifting due to climate change — we got to swim with the whale sharks and take photos of their backs and fins. I’m an animal lover, so anything with animals interests me.
Do you have any pets?
We have two dogs now, but we used to have a hobby farm in Burlington, with potbellied pigs, goats, sheep, horses and chickens. It was wonderful, but it was so much work, and as I started moving up in academia, I had less time. So now, we just have the two dogs.
What do you enjoy doing in your downtime?
I’ve gotten into creative writing a little bit — short stories and poetry. For me, that’s really therapy. I’ll walk along the lake in the morning and say my prayers as I’m walking, and I get inspiration to write something, so I get back to the house and jot something down.