Haneen (Palestinian American New Zealander) is a dentist working at Birch Lane Dental in Gore and teaches dental students at The University of Otago.
What do you do on an average work day?
I currently work part time in private practice and part time as a clinical tutor at the dental school at Otago University.
In private practice, I see and treat a range of patients for a range of different dental procedures. A typical day would include several fillings, check-ups and cleaning, a root canal, maybe a crown or an extraction or two. It is different every day and some days are more stressful than others.
At the dental school, I supervise students in clinics while they treat patients and it’s my job to make sure they don’t accidentally kill anyone, or worse, glue two teeth together. It’s essentially my job to teach the students how to do dentistry and it is 10 times harder than my job in private practice. We’re often under-staffed and I frequently have a large number of students under my supervision. It’s almost like treating 8-10 patients at the exact same time, except you can’t control the outcomes because someone with much less experience is essentially acting as your hands.
Despite it being difficult, I’m pretty passionate about it, as teaching is something I’ve always loved and always wanted to do. I’m also very attached to and love all my students and want nothing more than to see them all succeed and become exceptional young dentists. It’s incredibly rewarding because I get to be a part of their development and I get to watch them improve on a weekly basis. I’d go as far as to say that nothing is more rewarding than watching someone finally understand a concept or watching someone implement your advice and achieve a successful outcome.
Working two jobs means I don’t have a lot of free time, I work 6 days a week and despite only teaching for 2 of those days, the teaching takes up a lot of my time. I’ve always got tonnes of marking to do, a million emails from students to reply to, and lots of educational documents to try and write up to make their life a bit easier.
No day is boring and I get a lot of satisfaction from both treating my own patients and from teaching students - and I can’t really decide which one I love more. It doesn’t get much better than that and I have to remember not to take it for granted.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I had a major interest in physical education and sport and did strongly consider becoming a PE teacher, but also knew I wanted to do something in healthcare and ended up keeping my options open by taking all the sciences, maths, english and PE in high school. My favourite subject was the study period though, no question about that (spoiler: never used it to actually study).
After finishing high school, I moved down to Dunedin to pursue a Bachelor of Dental Surgery.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Absolutely, the degree not only cost me a fortune, it also cost a whole lot of blood sweat and tears so there was no chance I was ever not going to use it!
I did the degree for a reason and I’m so thankful it was what I ended up doing in the end, because it is truly the thing I feel most passionate about and I actually enjoy getting up and going to work every day.
I was artistic growing up (I especially enjoyed drawing on the walls as a toddler which I know my mother really appreciated) and always enjoyed working with my hands. My career choice marries my love of helping people with wanting to improve people’s health, with my love of science, with my love of working with my hands and most importantly, with my love of art.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
It’s probably over stated but that doesn’t make it any less true – nothing is more important than doing something you love. The retirement age is 65 and most people graduate in their early 20’s. You’ve got to work for approximately 40 years, give or take. 40 years is an enormous chunk of your life, you do not want to be spending it doing something you aren’t passionate about.
Decide what subject you find interesting and enjoy learning about and try and find something that will suit your interests, your passions and your skills. It’s easier said than done, and sometimes you have to try things out before you know if it’s for you.
Don’t be afraid to decide something isn’t for you, there is no shame in changing your career path. 1 extra year, 2 extra years and even 5 extra years are nothing in the grand scheme of things. If you find something you’re passionate about, you won’t have to work a day in your life, right? I used to laugh at this overused phrase and I hate to admit this, but honestly, it’s so true. I love my job so much that I’d happily do what I do for free – the pay truly is just a happy bonus.
When you love something so much that you don’t need any incentive to do it, that’s when you know you’ve picked the right thing.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
So far, my biggest career highlight has to be the fact that I haven’t killed any patients yet. I hope that I haven’t jinxed it by saying it. My other biggest career highlight is that I have yet to cry when the first thing 50% of my patients tell me is that they hate the dentist.
I’m still not quite two years into my career so I wouldn’t say I’ve had too many highlights and I know I there is such a long way to go before I can consider myself any good at what I do.
That being said, it was pretty cool getting my research about miswak (the toothbrush twig) published in the New Zealand Dental Journal so quickly and being the youngest tutor ever hired at the dental school.
The true biggest highlight of my career so far is being given the opportunity to provide a whole lot of free dentistry this year to those that need it the most. Being awarded a grant is something I am incredibly excited about and I can’t wait to spend the next couple of months treating low income patients who really need the help completely free of charge.
Being able to give back to the community using my skills and my spare time is a huge deal to me and it has always been a major goal of mine to change the reputation that dentistry has for being all about the money. Because it isn’t. At least not for all of us. Like I said, I’d happily do what I do without pay and it’s time to put my money where mouth is and prove it. I’ve got such a long way to go but I’m looking forward to using my career to hopefully make a real difference.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
There is still so much we haven’t discovered yet and so much more to know about the world we live in. Every day we solve new problems and everyday new problems arise that desperately need solving.
We need to stay curious because curiosity is how we’ve come this far in the first place. All of these fields have a huge role to play in where we are headed in future and if the future is going to be bright, we need the right people to be in the right fields.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
For so many years, 50% of the talent in the world (women) has been either under-utilised or not utilised at all. It’s important to have more women working in STEM because it’s important for us to be tapping into 100% of our talent and potential. It would be incredible to see what can be achieved when we are maximising the brain power we have available.
Haneen is a dentist working at Birch Lane Dental in Gore and teaches dental students at The University of Otago. She was born in the USA, raised in Christchurch and is of Palestinian descent.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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