Recent BYU graduate Lauren Olsen wanted to be a dentist since she was 4 years old, but while at BYU, her advisor influenced her to pursue a different career path. She ended up graduating in 2018 with a degree in public health.
“He looked at me and was like ‘You know, if you’re a dentist, you’ll have a really hard time being a mom,'” Olsen said, describing the conversation that led her to change majors. “I left and just cried a lot.”
Olsen said a public health internship in Cambodia helped her realize she needed to return to her roots and study dentistry. While there, she met a young girl with an infected tooth and a swollen face who couldn’t speak. There were no dentists available in the area to assist her.
“I was flying home the next day and thought ‘I didn’t do anything for her,’ and it’s one of my biggest regrets,” Olsen said. “When I got home, I started having a lot of little experiences that reminded me that I wanted to be a dentist all along.”
Olsen said once she got home, she asked family members if they knew any women in dentistry. She eventually learned about Jennifer Klonkle, who is a mother and works one day out of the week as a dentist in Arizona.
Dentists like Klonkle inspired Olsen to find a way to share their stories with other aspiring female dentists.
“If only other girls at BYU could see this,” Olsen said. “I know these nice, normal, smart girls are dentists and moms and whatever they want to be.”
Despite the small number of female dentists in Utah, Olsen established the Women in Dentistry committee at BYU to inform others that there are women who have successfully forged a career in dentistry.
Only four percent of dentists in Utah are women, while 28.9 percent of dentists are female nationwide, according to a 2017 study by the Utah Medical Education Council.
Women in Dentistry president Kendra Law said the group has grown from six to about 30 members. Law said she believes the numbers have increased because of the committee’s support for students who would otherwise be discouraged from a career in dentistry.
“It just helps to have this support group of women who are all trying to reach the same goal,” Law said. “Even when some people are saying, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ we can turn to each other, and we have a good network of people supporting and pushing us to all reach the same dream.”
The Women in Dentistry committee volunteers for organizations like Community Health Connect to help youth from low-income Utah County families receive the dental care they need. Members of the committee participate in a fluoride varnish program where they check children’s teeth and refer severe cases to dentists who offer dental care free of charge.
“They get a chance to see and understand that there are kids that really don’t have a toothbrush or can’t take care of themselves,” said Julie Francis, Dental Assistant Program Coordinator of Mountainland Technical College. “They get that feeling to help people and become more involved in the community.”
Olsen said she is expanding the Women in Dentistry committee to reach female dental assistants who are juniors and seniors in high school.
“Ninety percent of the high school students we talked to signed up to learn more,” Olsen said. “It taught me when you teach young girls about their potential, they want to do big things.”
Olsen is now completing prerequisites at UVU so she can apply for dental school next summer. She is also creating a website where young women can observe the examples of female dentists who have successfully balanced their career and other interests.
“So that there will never be a girl again who comes to BYU and gets told ‘No, you can’t be a mom and a dentist. You can’t be a Young Women’s president and a dentist,'” Olsen said. “We’ll have a database of interviews showing that you can and that women all over the country are doing it.”