Most dentists know they want to be a dentist by high school, and almost all Iowa dentistry alumni graduate from the college planning to enter private practice. Professor Emerita Rebecca Slayton (’92 DDS, ’98 PEDO, ’98 PhD) is an exception to both generalities.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Earlham College in Indiana, Slayton moved to Iowa City where she began working in research and later, earning a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering. On the advice of her mother, she also began participating in a sailing club where she met Larry Peterson (’70 MS), who was on the faculty for dentistry for almost 30 years.
Through her relationship with Larry, whom she eventually married, she met many other dental faculty members.
“I became intrigued by the variety of activities available to dentists working in academics—teaching, research, clinical care, etc., and decided I wanted to be a dentist in academics myself,” Slayton explained.
For Slayton, what set Iowa apart was its approach to educating future dentists and she also spoke highly of the dental student research program and her research mentor, Jim Wefel.
“Iowa has always had the philosophy that if you teach students to do what is best for patients, they will receive the best possible education,” Slayton explained.
For Slayton, this insight shaped her career.
Since Slayton wanted to be an academic, she pursued specialty training and advanced educational opportunities after earning her DDS. Kevin Donly (’84 DDS, ’86 MS, ’86 PEDO), one of Slayton’s Iowa mentors, advised her to pursue her PhD during her specialty training.
She chose pediatric dentistry because she loves working with children. Pediatric dentistry and a PhD in genetics was an ideal combination given the developmental anomalies that many children experience and the influence that genetics has on appearance, behavior, likes and dislikes, etc., which Slayton knew all too well because she saw it firsthand in the commonalities between she and her identical twin sister.
Upon completing her PhD and pediatric dentistry residency, Slayton started as an assistant professor at Iowa before serving several years at Oregon Health & Science University and the University of Washington in various professorial and administrative roles. She then returned to Iowa as professor and head of pediatric dentistry.
In 2013, she accepted the position of associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Washington School of Dentistry where she also served as professor and chair of pediatric dentistry. Since 2016, she has been professor emerita in pediatric dentistry at Washington.
Throughout her academic career, Slayton has been an accomplished researcher and a national leader in pediatric dentistry research organizations, serving as president of the International Association for Dental Research’s Pediatric Oral Health Research Group, chair of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry’s Scientific Program Committee, and chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Children’s Oral Health Foundation. These connections and experiences shaped her, and she strongly encourages dentists to find ways to participate in organized dentistry, whether at the local or national level.
Larry Peterson and Slayton were married for almost 30 years.
“He was a constant source of encouragement throughout my time at Iowa, Oregon and Washington,” Slayton said somberly.
Larry passed away on August 22, 2021. He left behind his wife, three children, seven grandchildren, and their great-grandchild who was born on the day that Larry died. Now, Slayton lives in Margaritaville, South Carolina near her twin sister, Bonnie Shelton.
Rebecca Slayton’s passion for and dedication to serving others in and through pediatric dentistry has made a profound difference at Iowa, Washington, and Oregon and to her larger discipline, and she has influenced countless patients, students, and faculty members through her efforts. Her influence on current faculty and the direction of the University of Iowa Department of Pediatric Dentistry remains to this day.
“I really wished more people realized how rewarding academic dentistry is, especially when you received your training at the best school in the country,” Slayton said quietly as she reflected on her career.
And so it is with great pleasure that the University of Iowa Dental Alumni Association and the College of Dentistry recognize Rebecca Slayton as the 2022 Alumnus of the Year.