CDM Class of 2020: Christina Nuñez
In the eyes of College of Dental Medicine (CDM) graduate Christina Nuñez, good dentistry goes beyond taking care of mouths. A public health perspective, informed and amplified through her DDS/MPH dual-degree training at Columbia University, infuses her mindset and career ambitions.
Rather than focusing solely on a person’s body and on physiology, said Nuñez, a public health approach to oral health care takes a broader view. That may include “things like orienting your office to be more welcoming to different types of people in the community, thereby increasing access to health care for certain populations, or thinking about the types of preventive health information you can be offering and counseling your patients on.”
As a clinical student, Nuñez found herself in a position to provide that kind of extra support to patients, as in the case of a teenager who came to the clinic for dental treatment but had a separate injury that she found alarming. After discussing the situation with a faculty member, she connected the patient’s family to a social worker who could better assist with other issues that were affecting the patient’s well-being. “That stuck with me because when you have an instinct that something’s not right, or that people might need help beyond oral health care, I feel it’s our duty to be the person that sees that and provides them with as many resources as possible. It was one instance where I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a huge tangible impact that dentists have on people’s lives beyond their smile when you choose to notice and take action.’”
Adolescents can be particularly vulnerable populations, she said, and their burgeoning autonomy is a double-edged sword with respect to health. “It's such an empowering age, when they can set their own habits, their own routines, what they care about, and really set themselves up for success in adulthood. Yet, there are so many ways that they can get lost in the system and therein disenfranchised. I think there's a lot that can be done there to improve their access to oral health care.”
Nuñez intends to do just that as she moves forward with her dental training, and she has already extended a helping hand to teens in another big way. Since arriving at Columbia five years ago, she’s been active in the University’s State Pre-college Enrichment Program (S-PREP) as a tutor for underprivileged New York City high schoolers. Prior to that, she tutored her peers at New York University’s Learning Center while working on her bachelor’s degree there.
“I just love teaching—it’s something I’ve done since middle school,” she said. Nuñez has experienced so much gratification as an educator that she plans to enter dental academia. She aspires to mentor future generations of dental providers on the variety of ways that they may serve patients and populations, especially those that are underprivileged.
Nuñez took part in several other extracurricular activities at Columbia. At CDM, she served as president of the Dr. Michael Yuan Student-Run Dental Free Clinic—part of the Columbia-Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership, or CHHMP—which offers dental screenings and oral hygiene instruction to the Harlem community, especially individuals in vulnerable populations. And while at the Mailman School of Public Health, she became a peer advocate with Columbia’s Sexual Violence Response, undergoing 40 hours of training that certified her to provide crisis support to University students impacted by sexual or partner violence.
After Nuñez graduates, her next destination is Chicago, where she will be a resident at the University of Illinois specializing in pediatric dentistry. “My goal is to become a better dentist for children—adolescents, specifically—and keep my focus on being a public health advocate at the forefront of my mind.”