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Dara Johnson and Zoie McIntosh did not know each other when they arrived at the UAB School of Dentistry a year ago. But they have become such good friends since then that they are now embarking on a 13-month community health project together as members of the 2022-23 class of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship of Alabama (ASF).

 “We both have a passion for service, so this was a perfect opportunity for us to work together,” says McIntosh, a native of Huntsville who received an undergraduate degree in Biology from Oakwood University. “We both want to implement service throughout our dental careers, and this fellowship gives us the tools and the knowledge to do that.”

The pair still are deciding between two potential projects for their ASF year: either working with school-age children who are learning about overall nutritional health, or providing oral health education – particularly periodontal information – for patients with diabetes.

“Both topics highlight oral health and hygiene, and the greater impacts they have on the body,” says Johnson, a native of Montgomery who majored in Medicine, Health and Society as an undergrad at Vanderbilt University. “One would teach children the importance of oral hygiene in improving health outcomes, while the other would highlight the connection between diabetes and gum disease.”

Either possibility is exciting for the two students, since both projects will allow them to directly use their dental education for community service.

“I really love the Schweitzer Fellowship, because it gives us an opportunity as students to be the change that we want to see,” McIntosh says. “A lot of times we have these very broad ideas of how to help the communities we want to reach, but we don’t have any way to actually implement those ideas.

“With the Schweitzer Fellowship, they set us up with funds, opportunities and mentors so we can implement these ideas. I have a passion for service. So for them to get me going on the track that I want to do in terms of serving the community was a perfect opportunity for me.”

Johnson agrees. She points out that as a full-time graduate student who does not have long-standing ties to the Birmingham area, it can be difficult to discover a community-service project that fits both her schedule and areas of expertise.

“This fellowship is giving me a really good opportunity to find how I can be helpful and leave an impact on Birmingham during my time here,” Johnson says. “The cross-collaborations will help shape how I think about service, and then integrate that into my future as a dental professional.

“It will also help hold me accountable to living the life of service that I want to live. If I’m prioritizing it now, hopefully I can carry that throughout my career.”

Johnson and McIntosh are among 20 graduate students from UAB and Auburn University in the 2022-23 ASF class, making it the largest cohort in the six-year history of the fellowship’s Alabama chapter.