Student Spotlight: Shelly Gareiss Finds Dentistry the Perfect Combination of Science and Art

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Shelly Gareiss

Shelly Gareiss decided to be a dentist while taking an undergraduate class in – of all things – metalsmithing. It was a fine arts class, associated with jewelry and silverware.

Gareiss quickly noticed, however, that a quarter of her classmates were there because it was a fine arts prerequisite for dental school. It seems that the skills for jewelry making aren’t so different from those for filling cavities or performing oral surgery.

“That’s when it dawned on me that dentistry was the perfect combination of science and art,” she said.

This isn’t an odd segue, according to J. Stansill Covington III, DDS, MS, FRSM, associate dean of Admissions and Student Affairs in the College of Dentistry.

“Dentistry is unique in the health professions in that demonstrated surgical skills are required to complete the program,” Dr. Covington said. “Clinical dentistry, after all, is small-scale surgery – often upside-down and ‘backwards,’ due to having to look into a mirror – so fine motor skills are absolutely essential.

“Equally vital is an eye for proper contour and symmetry on the smallest of scale. In the admissions process, we question prospective students about activities in which they have demonstrated dexterity or artistic ability. We’ve found these to be a nice indicator of those skills.

Gareiss grew up in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs with her brother, Brad, and sister, Kim. Their parents, Ron and Anita, met while working at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and are retired.

A 2006 graduate of Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois, Gareiss went on to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she majored in integrative biology and minored in chemistry. Despite a packed schedule, she was involved in gymnastics, dance, Habitat for Humanity, Kappa Delta sorority and more.

She also found time to take that life-changing class in metalsmithing.

“However, being the over-analytical person I am, I delayed my application while I came to terms with the financial commitment,” she said.

Gareiss took on corporate jobs at technology entities CDW and IBM. She was also a volunteer for Chicago Business for the Arts, where she did pro bono business consulting for local arts organizations. After four years, it was finally time for dental school.

“I applied and interviewed in all corners of the country,” Gareiss said. “Ultimately, UTHSC’s focus on clinical skills and the faculty set it apart. Memphis is a great transition from Chicago; there is plenty to do when I have time to do it.”

For most people, being accepted into dentistry school would be enough. Gareiss, however, went one step further: She joined the U.S. Navy.

“I joined the navy in October 2014 when I was selected for the Health Professions Scholarship Program,” she said.

“I had considered going to the U.S. Naval Academy for undergrad, but ended up choosing the traditional route. This is a great opportunity to pursue the military and serve the country. Growing up, I was involved with various service organizations, and this was a natural course for me.”

On graduating, Gareiss will be commissioned as a lieutenant, and will be on full-time active duty. “I’m currently commissioned as an Ensign reservist and am on active duty 45 days per year,” she said.

“Unfortunately, my school schedule doesn’t allow me to attend any training while I’m in school. I will attend a five-week Officer Development School after graduating. Then, I will receive orders to serve as a dentist at a Naval base – domestic or abroad – to treat sailors, Marines, and  their families.

“Typically, these orders last one calendar year and then I will be placed at a new location. I expect to have one ship deployment for five to six months, but that could change.

“Aside from the service and professional benefits of the Naval Dental Corps, the financial benefits are outstanding. Being an out-of-state student, I was looking at $350,000 of debt for tuition, fees, and living expenses. The navy pays my tuition and fees as well as a living stipend. This allows me to focus on school without the anxiety of the financial burden.”

“Student involvement engages your immediate community,” she said. “For nearly all students at UTHSC, schoolwork is our full-time job. It can be hard to balance school with outside life, whether it’s professional development or social time. As students, we are lucky to have these benefits within the university community if we choose to pursue them. I moved to Memphis having zero connections and have found that my involvement has allowed me to meet a network of friends and colleagues that I can rely on. It also keeps my communication and business skills in check.”

Gareiss is the president of her class (2018); a committee chair (Educational and Professional Development) for the UT InterProfessional Student Council; and co-founder of UTHSC Chapter of Remote Area Medical. She belongs to the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), American Association of Women Dentists, UT Dental Esthetics Club, and Xi Psi Phi, a dental fraternity. This past summer, she did research under Franklin Garcia-Godoy, DDS, MS, PhD, PhD, professor and senior executive associate dean for research for the UTHSC College of Dentistry.

In her spare time, Gareiss enjoys refinishing and reupholstering furniture for her personal use and eventually selling those pieces to make room for new projects. “Running, weight lifting, and dancing are my stress relievers,” she said. “Otherwise, I fill my free time travelling with friends or going back to Chicago to see my family.”

“Shelly is an excellent leader,” Dr. Covington said. “I remember her from her interview. She had hobbies ranging from making intricate jewelry to reupholstering furniture, and was working for IBM’s Business Development Group. I trust we made a good impression as she drove past two dental schools to get to ours.

“She was thoughtful and articulate; I was happy when her class recognized her as a leader by electing her class president and even happier when she was selected for the ultra-competitive United States Navy scholarship.”

“You are here after being vetted, interviewed, and chosen,” she said. “You are meant to be here, and you have everything you need to do great! This program requires hard work and patience, two qualities that you undoubtedly know well.

“Beyond hard work and patience, you must find humility,” she continued. “Professionalism is more than a suit and leather portfolio; it is accepting responsibility and acting accordingly. If you find yourself struggling, ask for help. It is humbling, but it sends a message of commitment, which can go a long way.”

Gareiss has strong ideas about the future.

“My ultimate goal is to provide superior dental care so that my patients leave with positive feelings and look forward to seeing me. This is something that can be achieved every day whether I’m in a Navy clinic or a private practice. If I can achieve this, the rest will follow.”