Enterprising Women

by Andrea Kemmerrer

  • Posted on February 9, 2016

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Enterprising Women

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This article first appeared in Vol. 16, No. 4 of Enterprising Women magazine (www.enterprisingwomen.com) and is being reprinted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Arizona State engineering students provide humanitarian dental care

When Fionnaula McPeake learned El Salvadorthat students from Arizona State University were designing a mobile dental clinic to help thousands of impoverished people in Nicaragua, the biomedical engineering major knew she wanted to join them.

“I liked the idea of helping so many people and making such an impact at such a young age instead of just being in class,” she said of the project, which she is designing with five other students who call themselves the Engineering Smiles team.

What McPeake didn’t realize, however, was that the $180,000 mobile dental clinic would not only become the largest student led engineering project in ASU history, but one of the largest student-led engineering projects in the United States.“I think it’s so incredible that these talented young women are not only helping us fulfill a critical need for humanitarian dental care in Central America, but they are breaking stereotypes by demonstrating that young women can take on some of the largest student led engineering projects in the country,” said Ines Allen, founder and president of IMAHelps, the non-profit group that approached ASU students about designing a mobile dental clinic four years ago.

Rancho Mirage, Calif.-based IMAHelps organizes some of the largest medical and dental humanitarian missions in Central America.

During the past five years, IMAHelps volunteers have provided more than $1.6 million worth of dental care to 3,655 patients in Nicaragua, Peru and El Salvador.

But Allen says IMAHelps could treat even more patients — and recruit more volunteers — if it had a mobile dental unit because of the difficult working conditions volunteers encounter in Central America.

Engineering Smiles Project Manager Sara Mantlik witnessed the conditions IMAHelps volunteers experience when she accompanied the group on a medical and dental mission to a hospital in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador last summer.

“It was crazy seeing it first hand,” said Mantlik, who is majoring in mechanical engineering. “Being there and watching them literally piece together a dental operatory was really eye opening.”

Indeed, while IMAHelps volunteers used portable dental equipment, including sterilizing machines, which they brought from the United States, they improvised one of their dental chairs using a massage table they found in the hospital’s junkyard.

Mantlik said entire families came for treatment, some of whom had never had a tooth brush or toothpaste. “We saw patients whose teeth were so bad they had incredible pain,” she said.

Mantlik also learned how the poor often face dire economic consequences if they lose their teeth: Most employers won’t hire people to work with the public if they don’t have a normal smile.

But while the ASU students clearly understand the need for the mobile dental clinic in Nicaragua, the project has been challenging because it involves not only architectural and engineering design work, but marketing and fundraising components.

“There is no class to really guide us,” McPeake said. “The university is really good for getting you started. But after you get past a certain point, you have to feel your way and find mentors as you go.”

Mentors have included West Salem, Wis.-based Becker Custom Trailers, which helped guide the students with their designs, including specs on where to put plumbing and electrical wiring. Engineering Smiles plans to purchase the trailer from Becker to use for the mobile dental clinc.

Other mentors include John Cribbs, an ASU student pursuing a Ph.D in construction management, and Dr. Antonio Gonzalez, a Pasadena, Calif. dentist and longtime IMAHelps volunteer, who mentored the students as they researched OSHA and Americans with Disabilities Act design requirements.

The 50-foot mobile dental clinic includes four dental operatories, which will enable dentists to perform tooth restorations, root canals and extractions. The eco-friendly unit also features solar panels that will provide up to 50 percent of its power.

The students are also fundraising by promoting the project through newspapers and social media, said Andrea Kemmerrer, who is majoring in mechanical engineering.

“The biggest challenge right now is fundraising because if we don’t raise enough money, we won’t be able to do the project,” says Jackie Janssen, a biomedical engineering major, adding that the donations the Engineering Smiles team receives through this month (December 2015) will determine if the mobile dental unit can be completed as planned.

Christine Bui, an architectural studies major, graduated from ASU last May. However, she continues to actively support the Engineering Smiles team, even as she works full time as a project engineer intern for one of Arizona’s largest construction firms.

“I am still fine tuning some of the designs so that it makes sense for the end user,” she said, adding, “I want to make sure that our efforts will amount to something genuinely valuable.”

If the fundraising efforts are successful, Engineering Smiles will build the mobile dental clinic and donate the unit to IMAHelps before the students graduate in May.

IMAHelps plans to use the unit for dental missions to impoverished Native American communities in Arizona and California before shipping the unit to Nicaragua. IMAHelps plans to base the mobile dental clinic at UNICA, a private Catholic dental school in Managua, where it can be used to help train future generations of Nicaraguan dentists in between IMAHelps missions.

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About the Author

Andrea Kemmerrer

Andrea is a Senior at Arizona State University majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a strong interest in the medical field. She is the administrator for the Engineering Smiles website and writes the regular project updates on the Engineering Smiles' team behalf. Read more about Andrea on the About the Team page.