Dental chair at the UofL School of Dentistry
Dental chair at the UofL School of Dentistry. UofL photo.

It must have been fate. At 3 years old, Tiffany McPheeters carried dental floss in her back pocket. Now an assistant professor at University of Louisville School of Dentistry, she reflects on these early memories.

“Carrying the floss had nothing to do with me wanting to do dentistry,” she said. “It had everything to do with me not liking things in between my teeth.”

But McPheeters knew she wanted to be some type of medical professional.

“I would look up anatomy in encyclopedias, intrigued with the human body and thinking, ‘wow, this is inside of me.’”

Tiffany McPheeters, Assistant Professor, UofL School of Dentistry
Tiffany McPheeters, an assistant professor at the UofL School of Dentistry.

She said a mentor from her hometown of Chicago who helped minority students pursue professional careers was instrumental to guiding her to dentistry. After dental school graduation from Indiana University in 2016, she began her career in public health dental practice, but always with an eye towards academia later in her career.

That timetable was unexpectedly accelerated after her second child, Joshua, was born in 2018 with Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards Syndrome – a very rare genetic condition that causes severe developmental delays. The syndrome has no treatment and is usually fatal before birth or within the first year of life, but miraculously Joshua continues to beat the odds.

The demands of a special needs child and the arrival of COVID-19 prompted McPheeters to explore a career shift to academic research. In January 2021, she joined UofL and couldn’t be happier with the transition.

Her son’s special needs also became the inspiration for the professor’s decision to conduct oral health care research for special needs children.

“I had this idea to come up with some things to teach the community,” she said. “We have home nursing, however most clinicians don’t have any training on how to brush teeth or care for the mouth because most of the times they’re focused on things like, ‘Hey, is their heart working OK?’”

She applied for and received a Gheens Community Engagement Mini Grant to create a curriculum to help providers with oral care training for special needs patients.

“Most times we don’t see special needs patients until they’re in their 20s or 30s, and they need a full-mouth teeth extraction because someone hasn’t brushed with them, so I knew there is a need in that area. There are specialty clinics, but they have a two-year waiting list, so being on the prevention end will be helpful in so many ways.”

With the grant, she collaborated with local company Ohio Valley who provides home health services, and stocked them with special dental supplies for the community. McPheeters will present results of her initial community engagement research in March 2025. With the success of the Gheens grant, she plans to apply for larger grants that will allow her to continue and expand the work.

Coming from a big city, McPheeters has appreciated a slower pace and friendly vibe that is more aligned with family and work-life balance. She said she loves UofL’s emphasis on welcoming diversity.

“I never wake up dreading coming in to work, and when I come here, it brings joy to my day. I could be having a really tough morning, but if I’m able to mentor a student and touch their life in a way where I can encourage them and give them some good advice, it makes my day.”