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Say Ah-mazing: Kathryn Pawlak '09

As a busy dental student and founder of her own non-profit, Kathryn Pawlak '09 seldom slows down — but she always makes time for Northwood.  The Advancement Office caught up with Kathryn on a break from school to talk about dentistry, giving back, and life beyond Northwood.

Q & A With Kathryn Pawlak

AO: Where did you grow up and how did you find your way to Northwood School?

KP: As a child, we often skied in Lake Placid.  My parents encouraged me to go to school in a location where I could excel in academics and also develop as a ski racer. And, they knew that Northwood had strong academics and good college placement. My main focus was always to be a dentist.

AO: What are you doing currently?

KP: After Northwood, I went to Hobart William Smith Colleges and pursued a major in Spanish and Health Professions.  I had the good fortune to study abroad in Urbino, Italy and Seville, Spain, which was fantastic. After graduation, I began dental school in 2015 at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. I’m currently in my third year and my fourth year begins at the end of May – so I’m almost there.  As a third-year student, we transitioned into the clinic where we see patients each week. With my background in Spanish, I’ve had the opportunity to work with largely Spanish speaking patients from the surrounding Baltimore community.  I’ll get the coveted DDS designation on May 17, 2019.

AO: Tell me about Planet Smilez, the non-profit you founded.

KP: As a senior at HWS Colleges, I received a grant to go on an international mission trip to the Dominican Republic with my mentor and provide oral health education to children in an underserved area.  On the flight home, we spoke about the great opportunity and potential to help provide oral health education to underserved youth populations internationally – that’s when Planet Smilez was born.  Since then, we have traveled and worked with underserved children in Trinidad and Tobago, and I have had the opportunity to work with students with partial visual impairments at Port Fortin School for the Blind and provide oral health education there as well.  As a first-year dental student, I proposed to the administration at the University of Maryland that I wanted to develop a summer camp for underserved children from West Baltimore who were interested in pursuing careers in the biomedical sciences.

I developed a week-long summer camp for these children which takes place at the dental school where the children have the opportunity to learn about fluoride, sealants, and the development of cavities. In addition, the children learn about the risk factors involving oral cancer and the diagnosis and treatment modalities of oral cancer as well. This camp has had great success and the children are eager to come back as they love the hands-on opportunities that it provides them with as they learn about the use of indirect vision in dentistry as well as how to place a filling in a plastic tooth.  The camp is called the Planet Smilez Discovering Dentistry Camp.  This summer will be its third year. 

AO: Dental school is already extremely demanding. How do you find the time to manage a non-profit in addition to your school responsibilities?

KP: School is first and foremost, as becoming a skilled clinician is of utmost importance to me. However, giving back to the community is something I also enjoy so all of my free time is dedicated to Planet Smilez. I also am fortunate to be supported by the administration at the University of Maryland which helps me in facilitating the Discovering Dentistry Camp.

AO: What do you hope for the future of Planet Smilez?

KP: Wherever I attend my residency program, I’d like to bring the Planet Smilez Discovering Dentistry Camp with me. I would also like to expand this to other dental schools across the country. My goal is to provide children from underserved backgrounds with the opportunity to explore careers in dentistry at a young age and also equip them with the knowledge about how they can foster a healthy lifestyle through the use of a toothbrush. This upcoming summer the Discovering Dentistry Camp will take place at the University of Maryland and also the Pediatric Dental residency program at the University of Buffalo.

AO: Is dentistry still considered a male-dominated field?

KP: It is a growing field for women. In the past, it was a male-dominated profession, but women in dentistry are very much on the rise. Our class is about 50/50. A lot of the leadership positions in my program have also recently transitioned to women.

AO: Your generation, the Millennial Generation, is said to be a generation of activists and believe they can leave the world in a better place than they found it. What do you think about that?

KP: I would have to agree. My personal motto is that when I have an idea, I see it through – that is how I’ve turned my dreams into reality. It is a common thread of our generation. In fact, I encouraged another classmate to turn her idea into a non-profit as well.

My grandfather was an American held captive as a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp.  He was given a cup of water and a slice of bread a day.  His lack of oral health and nutrition caused him to get a full set of dentures in his early 30s.  That was the catalyst for me to become a dentist and later launch Planet Smilez.  I have seen how hard my family has worked and that has been a real motivator for me.  I’ve made progress thus far and I look forward to seeing what impact I can have on this world in the future.

AO: Back to Northwood. What do you miss most about being a student here?

KP:  I miss the interpersonal relationships I had with the faculty and the personal attention I had when I was struggling in certain classes. Faculty always encouraged me to do better and held me to a high standard, but when I struggled they were always there to guide me through it.  I also loved babysitting all the teachers’ kids – it got me out of study hall!

AO: What’s the one thing you believe every Northwood student should do or try?

KP: As an RA, I had the opportunity to interact with students from every country and interest.  Northwood allowed me to make friends with people all over the world. I would encourage students not to just stick with the same handful of friends, but to branch out and meet people. 

AO: What advice do you have for juniors and seniors looking for their next school?

KP: I’d choose a place where you’re most comfortable; that makes you feel like home. At the end of the day, you’re going to be away from your family for four years and for some people the transition is easier than others.  Go and see those colleges, go to the open houses, meet alumni and get a feel for it. When I was looking for dental schools across the country, I looked for a place I could call home. I looked for a city that I could see myself living in and programs that would provide me with the best education to suit my career path. Make sure you find a school that you will be comfortable at outside of sports, because if sports don’t work out, you will still be happy there. Applying to colleges is kind of like a dating game. You have to find a college that suits you and the school has to find candidates that suit them.  You have to be a fit for each other.