Kiran Saini in Stern Plaza with Jepson Hall in the background

Creating policy that makes people smile

May 3, 2024


A beautiful smile is not just aesthetically pleasing — it also can be a sign of good health. Kiran Saini sees evidence of this every time she volunteers at the free dental clinic operated by Richmond-based nonprofit Crossover Healthcare Ministry. When not sterilizing instruments, she shadows the in-house public health dentists, learning about the challenges uninsured and Medicaid patients face in accessing the regular dental care so critical to overall health.

“The patients are so grateful,” Saini said. “Some are almost in tears when getting dental work done.”

She said she came to the University of Richmond planning to pursue the pre-med track. But after taking a health studies class with Rick Mayes, professor of health policy, she changed from a biology to a health studies major. She kept her leadership studies major and leaned into her emerging interest in oral health care and policy.

Her family’s background in orthodontics bolstered that interest. After emigrating from India, her paternal grandfather became an orthodontist and opened Saini Orthodontics in Columbia, Maryland. Her father followed suit. Since 2019, the Richmond senior has worked as an assistant in the family practice during the summer months.

But she said it was her Jepson School of Leadership Studies internship in summer 2023 that convinced her to pursue a career in dental health care and policy. The school awarded her a Burrus Fellowship to support her internship with the Maryland State Dental Association Foundation. The nonprofit’s mission is to improve the oral health of Maryland residents through education and support of programs that improve access to dental care.

One of the foundation’s main outreach programs is recruiting dental health professionals to participate in Mission of Mercy clinics. These large, open clinics offer free screenings, extractions, and other dental treatments to the underserved.

“Ever since 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died in 2007 in Maryland from an untreated tooth infection that spread to his brain, there has been a big push in the state for better oral health care,” Saini said.

She has explored how public policy contributes to that effort. Guided by Jessica Flanigan, professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics, and law, she has been conducting independent research that includes writing a policy brief on a U.S. Senate bill that aims to ensure children have access to medically necessary dental care.

“I’ve also researched recommendations for targeting dental deserts in Maryland, including in Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and the city of Baltimore,” she said. “In areas lacking dentists, patients with dental problems often end up in emergency rooms, where medical professionals don’t have the right training to treat them.”

In the fall, she will enroll in the Master of Public Health Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she hopes to focus on oral health policy. Then, she plans to pursue a doctorate in dentistry.

“I want to work in public health dentistry, doing a bit on both the legislative and clinical sides,” Saina said. “It is rewarding to provide services that make people smile.”