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OHSU School of Dentistry graduate Scarlett Kettwich didn’t follow a typical path to becoming a dentist.

After receiving bachelor’s degrees in aquatic biology and Spanish at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she moved to Hawaii to pursue a master’s degree in tropical conservation biology and environmental science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. 

But she found ecology research isolating and hard on the body. Once she received grant funding to hire people, she realized that creating opportunities was her favorite part of the program.

“To get someone a job and see how I could make a big difference in their life compelled me to do something different,” Scarlett said. 

Dentistry appealed to her because she wanted to improve how people interact with the world.

“We had one patient who was missing her front teeth. We gave her a removable partial denture. She told us it gave her the confidence to go out and apply for work. Now she has a full time job. We can help people with the resources they need to take control of their lives,” Scarlett said. “That is powerful and fulfilling.”

Helping the community

The OHSU School of Dentistry offers community-based rotations for students to aid underserved populations. Before graduation, Scarlett participated in a clinical rotation in Missoula, Montana, to help increase the number of patients seen at the clinic.

“Being able to do that as a student was incredible. That is one of the coolest things about OHSU: most schools’ rotations are two to four weeks, but ours is nine weeks,” she said. 

“I wouldn’t be where I am now without having had OHSU’s support to be with my family and then come back and focus on my education.” 

Scarlett was also president of the OHSU School of Dentistry’s Student Patient Assistance Program, a philanthropic club which helps patients without dental insurance afford the care they need. It pays up to 75 percent or $500 toward necessary dental treatment. Students identify patients who need dental procedures and are motivated to improve their health, but who don’t have adequate funds to pay. 

She plans to incorporate philanthropic efforts into her own practice someday, and has been reaching out to other providers to share their ideas and experiences. 

“You could do a free dental day, where you offer one free treatment or filling or sealant to each patient. That could make a very significant impact for someone,” she said.

Having grown up on a farm in New Mexico, Scarlett is contemplating eventually returning to the rural lifestyle. 

“My dad was a surgeon and my mom was an internist. When our animals would get sick, they’d often use their own knowledge to help them. And my mother was one of the biggest motivating factors to go into health care: She was a brilliant diagnostician. Her patients loved her. She had a way of getting someone’s whole family to come in. Dentistry is like that too: You can serve an entire family, for multiple generations” she said.

Dental school allowed Scarlett to pursue what she loves as well as honor her mother. Between Scarlett’s first and second years of dental school, her mother became ill with an aggressive form of melanoma. Scarlett took a leave of absence to care for her and work on the farm. 

Before her mother passed away, Scarlett was applying for scholarships to help aid her return to school. She received two scholarships and has committed at least two years to working in public health in a medically underserved area of the U.S. 

“She knew I was applying for scholarships and always pushed me to keep applying, even if I got turned down the first time,” Scarlett said. 

After her mother passed away and Scarlett returned to school, she appreciated OHSU’s support.

“I wouldn’t be where I am now without having had OHSU’s support to be with my family and then come back and focus on my education,” she said.  “I want to be as good a provider as my mom was. She would never leave a stone unturned with her patients. So every patient I see, I want to treat them to the best of my ability.”