The dental track of the Summer Health Professions Education Program showcases careers in dentistry for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Since 2017, this highly competitive program has served over 120 students helping to prepare them for dental school and a future career in dentistry. The SHPEP program is one of 12 national programs funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to showcase careers in healthcare professions for students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

The UI program is a partnership with the Colleges of Dentistry, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Public Health.  Michelle McQuistan, associate professor and officer for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the College of Dentistry, leads the dental track of the program. Each year, she and Sherry Timmons, professor and associate dean of students, and Rachael Kowbel, director of admissions, select approximately 20 undergraduate students to participate in the dental track of the program.

These students are selected from among a highly qualified pool of students from backgrounds underrepresented in dentistry. McQuistan then administers the day-to-day operations of the dental track working closely with current dental students to assist who help lead the activities.

Speaking to the benefits of the SHPEP program, McQuistan said, "Some colleges and universities don’t have a pre-dental club, so students can feel as though you are “the only one” with an interest in dentistry, but bringing 20 people together from all across the country provides a cohort of friends who can support each other as they embark on their pursuit of becoming dental students. It's exciting to see  many of our past participants maintaining those friendships during dental school."

Over the course of the six-week dental track, students get an up-close and personal familiarity with what dental school will be like.

McQuistan highlighted several such opportunities:

"First, SHPEP students have the opportunity to shadow in the dental clinics, which is a requirement for most dental school applications. Second,  it’s especially beneficial for them to shadow at the College of Dentistry because they get to watch dental students and residents interact with their patients, thus they are getting to learn from people who were recently pre-dental students themselves.  Third, they see the larger dental school curriculum in real time with the opportunity to learn about the dental specialties from specialists in the college. Fourth, they participate in Q&A sessions with dental students and members of the Admissions committee. And lastly, they participate in numerous hands-on sessions, thus helping them determine whether they like the clinical aspect of dentistry." 

Karina Narvarro working in the SimClinic
Karina Navarro

Karina Narvarro was one participant in the program in 2023. She is a University of Iowa junior and a pre-dental club member, and she came to Iowa from Puerto Rico because she wanted to go to dental school at Iowa. She learned about SHPEP while working as a greeter for Iowa Dentistry.

“Before SHPEP, I had shadowed dentists and I felt like I had a good understanding of what a career in dentistry would be like, but the SHPEP program really transformed my understanding—it gave me so much confidence because I could see many different perspectives and specialties from some of the best dentists in the world,” Navarro said.

Taspiya Begum working during the SHPEP program
Taspiya Begum

Another student in the program was Taspiya Begum. Begum is a rising junior at Detroit Mercy University, and her pre-health academic advisor at Detroit Mercy encouraged her to consider SHPEP programs. After applying to several, she chose to attend Iowa's SHPEP program because she saw other students wearing headscarves and could see herself at Iowa.

The experience for Begum was also rewarding.

“It was really helpful to learn about all the specialties that are available at Iowa, since it was mostly new to me—I was so excited to learn about the opportunities available in operative dentistry and pediatric dentistry; and Dr. Weber Gasparoni’s work with low-income mothers and children was really exciting to me,” Begum said 

Milan Halliburton showing off her work
Milan Halliburton

Milan Halliburton, a junior at Colorado Christian University, learned about the SHPEP program doing her own research on the ADA website. She applied to several SHPEP programs and chose Iowa because it was conducted all in-person.  

“It’s been really, really great to learn more about the dental application process, the cost and the logistics of it all. I am 100% more confident in the process now,” Halliburton said.

With this excellent group of 20 students on the dental track in 2023, Iowa Dentistry is helping to prepare a diverse dental workforce that is committed to giving back to the profession through their service to others.

Sherry Timmons, professor and associate dean of students, speaks highly of the program.

"Having resources and mentorship to guide developing students in their pursuit of higher education is so essential for them and our profession. SHPEP is a wonderful immersive, structured program that provides a solid foundation in the scholar’s professional development. We are fortunate that the college is a partner in the Iowa program and look forward to continuing this valuable and meaningful work.”

The application process for the program generally opens in November and closes in February. If you are interested in participating next year, you can learn how to apply here.


Some of the hands-on activities for the summer 2017 dental track of the SHPEP program at Iowa.