Sylvia Frazier-Bowers is an associate professor and clinician-scientist/dentist-scientist in the UNC’s School of Dentistry’s Department of Orthodontics. She has been praised by her peers as being passionate about her work while being a voice for the underserved. As a result of her arduous focus on education, research and mentorship, she has just been named Assistant Dean of Inclusive Excellence and Equity Initiatives at the School of Dentistry.
Frazier-Bowers’ research focuses on understanding the genetics behind how teeth and faces form. She came to UNC-Chapel Hill to start a combined orthodontics residency and Genetics PhD program in 1993 and is regarded as a respected researcher, educator and mentor. Frazier-Bowers has held various leadership positions in orthodontic and craniofacial biology fields, both locally and on the national level. Through these positions, she has advocated for diversity, equity, inclusivity, and social justice. In addition, she volunteers as the Student National Dental Association advisor at Carolina.
Under her leadership, the American Dental Association Foundation recently awarded the UNC School of Dentistry’s Student National Dental Association (SNDA) with the E. Bud Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Award in recognition of SNDA’s work at its Center for Accessible Affordable Health, Research, and Education (CAARE) clinic. The clinic, established to help bridge the gap in access to care for the underserved population in Durham, NC, is a model of service and learning that provides free dental care to underserved adults.
Your interest in medicine began early: you enrolled in the Chicago Health and Medical Careers Pre-College program when you were in high school. How did you know, at such a young age, that medicine would be your future?
As a young child, I was very inquisitive (as most children are), but I found science, and the health field in general, gave me the greatest challenge and sparked my curiosity.
Were your parents and teachers supportive of this? Did you encounter any pushback?
My teachers and parents were very supportive. Although this isn’t portrayed through the media on Chicago, the South Side neighborhood where I grew up was known for the value placed on education and career success. The majority of kids who lived and grew up in the Chatham-Avalon-Park Manor neighborhood completed college and often also completed graduate or professional degrees. In my family, the decision to go to college was less of a choice, but an expectation; advancing your education further was encouraged. Admittedly, my parents were a bit perplexed by the DDS, followed by a specialty and then a PhD, but most of my peers find this pathway atypical as well.
What attracted you to dentistry, in general, and orthodontics, specifically?
My journey to dentistry was a bit fortuitous. As a child, unlike most kids, I enjoyed going to the dentist. After being exposed to health careers in a formal summer program, I realized that I liked the world of dentistry more than anything else. The orthodontic pathway was almost immediate. As a dental student, it was clear to me that what attracted me to dentistry in the first place was the architecture of a beautiful smile. The orthodontic specialty encompasses the art and science of the smile, the face and the bones that create this natural feature.
During your college years and as a researcher, what were your greatest obstacles – and how did you circumnavigate them?
As a college student, I embraced research early because of my participation during high school in the Chicago Area Health and Medical Careers program. Through this enrichment program for underrepresented minorities, I was then selected for a summer fellowship under the auspices of the Academy of Applied Sciences (Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Grant) before I went to college.This experience was eye-opening. I worked to help a postdoctoral fellow complete the isolation and purification of electric eel organ tissue. This set the stage for the safe space that research has always provided me; one where inquiry is encouraged and asking questions is safe. I tell my students – as it was taught to me by one of my mentors – “Research and academics allows the unique opportunity to ‘search for the truth’ – and then share that legacy with future leaders, teachers and the world.”
Under your leadership, the School of Dentistry’s Student National Dental Association (SNDA) provides free dental care to underserved adults. How was this relationship between UNC and the community created?
I can’t take any credit for the CAARE clinic but am proud of its development. The SNDA CAARE Clinic was inspired by Dr. Vincent Allison, DDS ’87, current president of the Old North State Dental Society and current adjunct associate professor at the school. CAARE was established and opened in the fall of 2012 to help bridge the gap in access to care for the underserved population in Durham. Through the clinic, and attending faculty, Dr Webster-Cyriaque and Allison, SNDA student members provide oral care, oral health education, nutritional counseling, and overall health and wellness screenings at no cost to patients. The clinic served 254 patients during the fiscal year 2017.
What does diversity mean to you?
My view of diversity is best captured in the African word, Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) – which means, “I AM because of who we ALL are.” Its meaning, which stems from a proverb, is relevant to diversity because it underscores “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects ALL humanity.”
If we ALL BELIEVE that we can achieve our best because of those diverse and unique people around us, then our collective lives will be better. Diversity in the workplace has been noted by many for the creativity and productivity that it brings. I believe that by embracing diversity, we possess the most powerful tool – seeing the same problem through the lenses of many different people.There is little prospect, real or theoretic, that being exclusive truly benefits anyone.
What change would you like to see UNC make (or continue to make) towards a more diverse and inclusive university?
UNC School of Dentistry has made great strides promoting diversity over the decades. The current climate in America and the world now dictate that we take a close look at how we show up in professional and social settings – not just how we show up in numbers, but in how we show up through our actions. The recent media has exposed that while diverse groups may be present, they are not always treated equitably or included in the discussion. Verna Myers, diversity consultant, sums it up nicely when she stated that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Of which of your achievements are you the proudest…and why?
Not including raising two wonderful girls, I am most proud of being inducted in the Omicron Kappa Upsilon Honor Society for dentists. Here’s why: as a dental student, I heard in advance how difficult dental school would be, so I entered school with a goal of “passing.” After a year in school, I learned that I was in the top 10% of my class. My goal instantly was to do even better. Before I knew it, I had achieved that goal and also was the recipient of the University of Illinois, OKU Award for Outstanding Junior Dental Student. I learned a valuable lesson of how powerful your attitude can be in shaping your future success.
What will be your first goal to achieve in your new position as Assistant Dean of Inclusive Excellence and Equity Initiatives?
My first day will be to begin the journey that can be summed up as #ItsAllAboutEverybody. I hope to reinvigorate the way we ALL communicate so that ALL stakeholders feel inspired to do so freely and professionally.
How do you spend your time away from the office? Any hobbies?
I have become a bit less interesting with age and “busy-ness.” I love going to listen to live music, especially jazz, and I love the theatre, arts, and a favorite pastime is visiting museums wherever I travel!
– by Adrianne Gibilisco