Sandra K. Rich, RDH, BA, MPH, PhD, is an associate professor at Ostrow School of Dentistry, University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. She is also former assistant dean of education development. After serving in the dental hygiene program as a faculty member for 11 years and program director for 5 years, Rich was recruited by Jorgen Slots, DDS, PhD, to teach both dental students and graduate periodontology residents. This experience led to the fulfillment of her dream to conduct clinical research. Over the past 7 years, Rich has been mentoring, teaching, and conducting research with Ostrow USC’s periodontal residents and their program director, Hessam Nowzari, DDS, PhD.
To date, she has published more than 50 papers and abstracts in dental and dental hygiene journals, and a chapter on behavioral science in two editions of Darby’s and Walsh’s Dental Hygiene Theory and Practice. Rich is also a member of Dimensions of Dental Hygiene’s Editorial Advisory Board. After teaching at USC for 35 years, Rich will retire this June.
What is one of the most interesting research studies you have conducted?
My research profile includes clinical and educational research, both of which have provided me with engaging learning experiences. My favorite educational project, which was published in the Journal of Dental Education in 2005, focused on using a problem-based learning approach to teach preclinical periodontics. I was delighted to work with mostly dental hygiene instructors as we taught dental hygiene to dental students. Our research showed that Ostrow USC’s transition to a problem-based learning approach resulted in educational outcomes similar to, or better than, those obtained with a traditional approach. My favorite clinical studies are those I conducted with periodontology residents on implantology and immunology. Together we developed protocols, applied to the Institutional Review Board for human subject approval, recruited research participants, completed treatments, and published results.
You earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and love the arts. Do these interests provide balance to your science-based work?
Yes, definitely. I love the sciences, but the arts are what keep me centered and most appreciative of life. I am married to a contemporary artist, Michael Rich, and through his guidance, I have received broad exposure to the visual arts. I studied philosophy so that I could broaden my education and try to increase my understanding of the world. Additionally, the experience helped me to improve my skills in analytical thinking and writing. I also love music. One of my greatest pleasures has been playing the trombone with a local jazz and swing orchestra over the past 25 years. I am a great lover of literature and mostly read the classics. It is amazing to me that little marks on a piece paper (or a computer screen) can profoundly influence our thinking, understanding, and behavior.
What role has mentoring played throughout your career?
Mentoring is an extremely important part of an academic career. This includes the mentoring we give to students and our junior faculty colleagues, as well as the mentoring we receive. For the past 5 years I have served on USC’s Mellon Mentoring Forum. The group works to develop a culture of mentees and mentors and to foster the role of mentoring in our academic community. In my career, I have had the pleasure of mentoring dental hygiene students, dental students, and periodontal residents. I have also been mentored myself by the best at Ostrow USC, including Dimensions’ Editor in Chief Emerita Anna M. Pattison, RDH, MS, and other outstanding clinicians and researchers at the university. Mentoring is a joy of academic life whereby we share special situations of trust and have the opportunity to watch each other grow in our achievements. Best of all, mentoring experiences can be highly personal and result in satisfying, lifelong relationships with students and faculty colleagues.
When you fully retire in June 2013, what will you miss the most?
Most of all, I will miss daily contact with my exceptional, goal-oriented students and professorial colleagues, who have played such a special role in my life. I am looking forward to getting to know people at USC’s Emeriti Center, and to participate in the wide array of intellectual and social activities they provide for the university’s retirees. Additionally, with a little help from the digital era, I hope to stay in contact with as many former students as possible. After 35 years, I cannot imagine a more satisfying career than the one I experienced at USC.
What developments do you foresee for the profession of dental hygiene over the next 100 years?
The emphasis on comprehensive health care reform has highlighted the rising costs of and disparities in access to oral care that exist in the United States. Our dental delivery system—although remarkably successful for two-thirds of the population—is not easily utilized by the remaining one-third or approximately 100 million Americans. People who are geographically isolated, living in institutions, of low socioeconomic status, have disabilities, or are homeless—as well as children/adolescents, older adults, pregnant women and mothers, and racial and ethnic minorities—are the least able to access professional dental care.
I envision that in the coming years, dental hygienists will be aggressively called upon to help eliminate the oral health disparities that exist in this country. Further, I believe that the dental hygiene profession stands ready and willing to play a major role in this responsibility, and is headed in the right direction with the dental midlevel practitioner movement. Even without further education—although I think that’s important—and without any new technology to assist them, dental hygienists have the skills to eliminate or reduce the incidence of periodontal disease and caries. For example, dental hygienists can provide patient education regarding oral disease prevention, scale and root plane, administer local anesthesia, apply fluoride treatments, place dental sealants, and more. Dental hygienists have the expertise and desire to make an impact, and I predict that they will function as key dental practitioners over the next 100 years and beyond.