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Dentistry by Degrees


By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2017 8:00 AM

Ruth Alvarez’ passion for dentistry has led her to earn four UCLA degrees.

Photo by Chris Flynn/UCLA School of Dentistry.

One of the first childhood memories of Ruth Alvarez ’07, M.S. ’10, D.D.S. ’13, Ph.D. ’16 was going to the dentist’s office to translate for her mother, who had periodontal disease.

“We spent a lot of time at the dentist,” says Alvarez, whose mother faced many painful procedures as well as the embarrassment of lost teeth. “She was frustrated that she couldn’t really communicate and that her problem wasn’t being taken care of.”

Eventually they found a dentist named Sebastian Gonzales who spoke Spanish and could help her mother. And there was a bonus: He also noticed the teenage daughter’s interest in dental procedures.

“She asked me, ‘Can I watch, can I see what you do?’ ” Gonzales recalls. He encouraged Alvarez — the valedictorian of her 2003 class at Santiago High School in Corona, Calif. — to study dentistry at UCLA, and a decade later he attended her graduation from the dental school.

Earning four UCLA degrees — a bachelor’s in psychobiology, a master’s in oral biology, a doctorate in dental surgery and, last year, a Ph.D. in oral biology — puts Alvarez in a select group. University records show that in the last three decades, more than 300,000 UCLA degrees have been conferred, but fewer than 120 students earned four.

And Alvarez is still not done. She’s currently working toward a pediatric dentistry certificate. “Ruth is very committed to giving back to her community and to being an inspiring role model for others,” says Carol Bibb ’66, M.A. ’68, D.D.S. ’78, a UCLA clinical professor of dentistry and mentor to Alvarez. Renate Lux, an associate professor who oversaw Alvarez’s master’s thesis, agrees, saying Alvarez was “always very invested in giving back to the disadvantaged community she comes from.”

Alvarez says she wants to not only help children be healthier, but also to find the kind of mentors she had. Children, she says, are conduits to their families: “When you teach a child something, it’s like you’re teaching the whole family.”

Not long ago, as Alvarez and her mother reflected on the years when the daughter was beside her mother at the dentist’s, trying to help her understand what was going on, the two shared a rueful laugh.

“She’s happy, and I guess in a way proud, that what happened to her was able to shape my life,” Alvarez says. “In a very strange way, it’s very rewarding.”