Gwen Werner

SAID 07 nikki,me and dez_3 The article below was written when Gwen Werner was a student. An update on Dr. Werner follows the article.

Recruiting American Indian Students into Dentistry

Gwen Werner, Navajo, is a dental student at the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health. As a Year 3 student she spends much of her time caring for her patients in the school’s dental clinic under the supervision of the dental faculty member. Werner is paired with a Year 4 dental student. She sees his emergency patients when he is away on rotations or externships. When he graduates, she will take over the care of his patients. Werner does internal rotations in specialties, such as oral surgery, and pediatrics. She also attends classes in fields, such as pharmacology and oral pathology.

Werner has been a key figure in creating a CD and Internet-based information for American Indian students interested in careers as a dentist [See
Resources]. When Werner decided to go to dental school, she didn’t know how to get the information she needed. She wants other potential dental students to know about the resources that are available as well as the steps that they need take to prepare for and apply to dental school.

When she graduates from dental school, Werner plans to keep her options open but says, “Eventually I want to live and work on the rez in Tuba City. My whole family lives there,” she says.

Balancing Career and Family

After high school, Werner went to Arizona State University (ASU) where she majored in architecture. After two years she married and had a baby daughter. Not wanting to put her daughter into day care, Werner put her education on hold for two years.

When she returned to school, Werner knew she wanted to balance a career with sufficient time for her family. Being a dental hygienist appealed to her because she could help people and have more reasonable working hours than most architects. In addition, the great need for dental professionals in the IHS was made clear to her when she tried to schedule a routine dental exam at a local IHS facility. “They told me they could only see people with emergencies,” she said. For a regular exam I’d have to wait for two years. I said that if I waited that long, I would be an emergency case.”

While taking classes at several community colleges in pursuit of the dental hygienist certification, Werner decided that she’d wanted some hands-on experience to see if this was the best career for her. She applied and was accepted in a dental assistant training position at the
Tuba City Indian Medical Center. After a couple of months the dental director and others began encouraging her to change her career path. “The director said I could do more for my community as a dentist,” says Werner. “At first I couldn’t imagine myself as a dentist. I had never met an American Indian dentist. Then I decided to give it a try.

“The dental director at Tuba City called Darlene Sorrell who was the first female Navajo dentist. She put me in touch with Dr. Blue Spruce who invited me to his house where we talked. He helped me become even more aware of the severe shortage of American Indian dentists.”

Werner returned to ASU where she completed a BS in biology. She encountered problems in getting the pre-dental school information that she needed, but with the help of other pre-dental students and advisor, she was successful in applying to dental school.


“I recommend becoming a dental assistant. See what a dentist does and whether you really like working in people’s mouths. I also suggest that students take advantage of the many opportunities that are available, such summer enrichment programs, INMED, AISES internships.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist, Buffalo Gouge, Creek and Cherokee, works with bright colors. Portraits are his main interest. For more information visit Art Exchange Galleries.)

Update August, 2008

Dr. Gwen Werner: “I graduated in June this year and received a dental license in the state of Arizona. I just started working at a tribal health clinic on the Salt River Indian Reservation. It is a small dental clinic with five chairs. I work with another dentist (my supervisor, Dr. Katrina Naasz, who is also Navajo); one hygienist; and three dental assistants. I will be serving my obligation to IHS at this site for the IHS scholarship that I received during dental school.”