INDIANAPOLIS — History is being made among the incoming class of the IU School of Dentistry (IUSD), Indiana’s only dental school.
This year's class has 66 women and 42 men, or 61% female enrollment. That's the highest number of female students and highest-ever percentage of women pursuing dental degrees in the school’s 142 year history.
Dean Carol Anne Murdoch-Kinch, an IU School of Dentistry alumna, returned to the school in 2019 to serve as the school’s 10th and first female dean.
“I don’t really think about [being the first female dean] all that much except when people ask me about it … it’s just sort of the life I’ve lived but when I talk to people … you realize that it’s actually pretty significant,” Murdoch-Kinch said.
Murdoch-Kinch says her father, a dentist, and her mother, a nurse, raised her to believe her gender was not going to be a barrier. She was one of six women in her class of 32 during dental school and says many women have paved the way before her, and now it’s her turn to do the same for others.
“I think the thing that’s the best part about it is that I now am an example to young women that you can do this and not only can you do it, you can be very successful and you can aspire to lead a dental school or any other leadership in dentistry that you might choose,” she said.
Entering the field
Amanda Vilenio has worked as a dental assistant helping with procedures and treatments before joining the IUSD Class of 2025.
“I fell in love with it. I really like all the aspects of dentistry and how there’s so many different ways to help people,” Vilenio said. “Looking at the doctor across the dental chair I always thought there are many years of school and experience and knowledge between me and this doctor despite there being such a small space. I have always kind of envisioned ‘I want to be in that position. I want to make those decisions for my patients and have these long life relationships with them.”
Vilenio is from El Salvador and says having an opportunity to be a part of the historic class is a big deal.
“For me as an immigrant to have this huge opportunity and to be of course a woman, a minority, I’m still shocked that I’m here,” Vilenio said. “Everybody here at IU has been so nice and so supportive.”
Susanna Sharples-Gordon, a first year dental student, says she spent a lot of time in the dental chair as a child.
“Everyone who worked with me was very kind, and they explained everything that happened along the way, so I got really interested in the science behind it and patient care,” she said.
Sharpels-Gordon says starting at a young age she noticed not a lot of girls were interested in science, but as she got older the number of women in her class increased.
“Going into dental offices you see a lot of women working in the front office, dental hygienists, dental assistants but growing up I didn’t see any female dentists,” she said. “It’s very big for me knowing there will be more female dentists and the head person in the office can be this little girl now.”
Sharpels-Gordon will work as a dentist for the Army after she graduates.
Kaitlyn Mullin, also a first year student from Pennsylvania, had dental issues as a child and her experience in dental offices made her have an interest in dentistry.
“My orthodontist was a woman, she had a really successful practice and she was a mom, and I was just amazed that she could do it all,” Mullin said. “I really saw myself in her shoes … she’s really what inspired me to go into dentistry."
In addition to being a part of school history, Mullin is also making family history.
“I’m also the first dentist in my family … I honestly just saw what I wanted and went for it, so I’m really proud of myself for that and I’m also really proud to be part of this class,” Mullin said.
Mullin says she would tell younger girls not to let other people’s opinions or fear get to you.
“There’s plenty of people who said I couldn’t do it or said I wasn’t going to be strong enough to extract a tooth or whatever, and that’s not true. I’m here and I’m gonna do it,” she said.
History and current trends
The school was founded in 1879 and the first female graduated from the IUSD in the late 1890s, records show. The first woman of color to graduate was Dr. Nancy J Hockett in 1900.
Data from the American Dental Association shows 13.6% of dental school graduates were female in 1980. That number jumped to 51.4% in the Class of 2020. In 2020-2021, 52.6% of predoctoral dental students were female, according to the ADA.
Murdoch-Kinch says now, there are more opportunities for dentists and more women are choosing careers in public health dentistry and other specialities that are relatively new.
“We see now there’s a lot of other paths that people can take and I think it makes it even more attractive for women,” she said. “Women going into public health can help increase access to care for populations that have not traditionally had access to good oral health care. I see that more women in the profession and how they’re choosing to practice can gradually transform the profession in ways that we’re just beginning to understand.”
Enrollment is also on the rise, both at IUSD and across the country. The ADA reports total predoctoral enrollment is at its highest level historically, with 25,995 students enrolled in the 2020-21 academic year. Before that, dental student enrollment was at its highest level during the late 1970s/early 1980s.
To learn more about the IU School of Dentistry, click here.