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Since the inaugural Alabama Schweitzer Fellows class kicked off in 2016, UAB School of Dentistry fellows have made the most of their time in the prestigious program. Though they use different tactics, their projects have one thing in common: improving oral health and overall health in vulnerable populations.

Dr. Raquel Mazer, who directs the school’s community collaborations, serves on the Alabama program’s advisory council. Mazer says the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship helps students identify and address unmet health needs. She shares, “The program is a fantastic way for our students to demonstrate leadership, while using their knowledge and skills in real-life situations where they can create lasting change.”

Once selected, fellows partner with community agencies for the yearlong program. They are paired with school-based academic mentors and site-based mentors. So far, projects have ranged from cooking classes to educational sessions, while sites include healthcare providers, a women’s center, a community center, and a food pantry.

Aissatou Barry-Blocker, DMD (’19)

Barry-Blocker, a member of the inaugural Alabama Fellows class of 2016-17, taught simple steps in personal nutrition to improve the oral health, and potentially reduce heart disease and diabetes, in Hispanic and Latino communities. Her nutrition education classes coincided with the regularly scheduled health screenings conducted by partner site Cahaba Valley Health Care.

Bhakti Desai, DMD (’20)

Also working with Cahaba Valley Health Care, Desai’s goal was to improve oral health through educating patients of the organization’s weekend clinics and helping them set short-term personal goals. The goals ranged from increasing water intake and decreasing sugary beverage intake to improving their current oral hygiene practices. Her project was later expanded to include patients of a free medical clinic through Equal Access Birmingham, where Desai provided oral health education and worked to implement oral health screenings.

Desai’s outcomes include the creation of a bilingual oral health curriculum centered on preventative oral care and a smoking cessation handout. A total of 81 patients received counseling on preventative oral health care and treatment options, while 67 patients reported that they achieved their individual oral health goals within one month. The project was transitioned to the Academy of General Dentistry chapter at UAB as an ongoing service project.

Hamilton Behlen, DMD (’20)

Behlen partnered with Norwood Resource Center. There, she led cooking demonstrations and nutrition lessons for 75 campers, ages 4 through 13, during a junior master gardener camp. The classes helped introduce campers to new fruits and vegetables. After the camp, she held small, nutrition-based cooking classes to encourage families to prepare healthy meals at home.

About the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, Behlen said her experience served as a constant reminder of why she entered the healthcare profession – to help people.  She shared, “It never ceased to amaze me how eager families were to learn at my cooking and nutrition classes each week.  Their genuine appreciation for such a program in their community inspired me weekly to develop lesson plans that were both enjoyable and impactful.”

Many families reported cooking at least one additional dinner at home each week and some parents said their cooking skills were increased as a result of Behlen’s classes. Ultimately, the Norwood Resource Center incorporated the healthy cooking classes into its permanent community programming.

Raymond Dawkins, DMD, MBA (’20)

Partnering with Christ Health Center, Dawkins used health fairs and one-on-one educational sessions to teach parents and children about the benefits of oral health. He also provided oral hygiene instruction for the children. Services offered through the Lovelady Women’s Center created awareness of the Medicaid dental benefits available for children and instructed parents on age appropriate methods to take care of their children’s teeth.

Dr. Michelle Robinson, Senior Associate Dean and Director of Diversity, served as his academic mentor. Robinson praised Dawkins for his leadership and drive to help others. “Ray’s passion for this project was contagious,” she said. “Parents and their children were incredibly receptive to the training and materials provided. The experience also helped to solidify Ray’s interest in Pediatric Dentistry and he is now completing a pediatric dentistry residency at Yale.”

Dawkins connected 52 patients to dental care at Christ Health Center. In addition, 40 children measurably improved their oral hygiene habits as a result of his project. He said his fellowship experience served as a reminder that everyone has the opportunity to do something truly meaningful and impactful. He also learned a few important leadership skills. “Throughout my project I have learned how to effectively communicate preventative health information to underserved populations, design health educational materials, and actively engage young children,” he said.

In addition to the practical skills he gained, Dawkins said he grew from his experiences with the other Albert Schweitzer Fellows. “This fellowship has served as an opportunity to step outside of the confines our respective academic programs to interact with a group of peers that share a common ethos, but with differing perspectives and capabilities,” he added. “This type of multidisciplinary collaboration is essential to solving the world’s health problems and as a future health professional, I will continue to seek opportunities to learn in this way.”

Ana Ospina and Bhumika Patel

Ana Ospina, a third-year dental student, and Bhumika Patel, a fourth-year dental student, are members of the 2020-21 Alabama Schweitzer Fellows class. For her project, Ospina is partnering with UAB’s 1917 Clinic. Patel is working with Blazer Kitchen, the university’s on-campus food pantry.

Upon completing the program, Ospina and Patel will join their predecessors as Fellows for Life. In the meantime, they are taking advantage of abundant leadership and development opportunities while carrying on the tradition of empowering vulnerable populations to live healthier lives.

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship

Project highlights adapted from: The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Alabama Fellows Program

Founded in 2015, Alabama’s program is one of thirteen active Albert Schweitzer Fellowship programs across the U.S. dedicated to developing a pipeline of emerging professionals who enter the workforce with the skills and commitment necessary to address unmet health needs. Competitively chosen from students enrolled in graduate and professional schools around the state, fellows demonstrate a passion for cultivating positive change in Alabama communities where the need is greatest. They come from a variety of academic disciplines and as Schweitzer Fellows, they work tirelessly to address existing health disparities in their communities.