An Interview with Dental Hygiene Educator Christine Nielsen Nathe, RDH, MS

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Dental Hygiene Educator Christine Nielsen Nathe, RDH, MS

An associate professor at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, N.M., Ms. Nathe also serves as the Graduate Program Director and Clinic Manager for the UNM Division of Dental Hygiene and is the coordinator of the UNM Division of Dental Hygiene Bachelor of Science degree completion program.

Ms. Nathe started her career in dental hygiene while completing her own education; since 1986 she has worked on both a part-time and full-time basis in patient care in Ohio, Connecticut, Virginia and New Mexico. Licensed to practice dental hygiene for 20 years, Ms. Nathe earned an associate of applied science in Dental Hygiene from Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio (1986), then went on to complete a double-major BS in dental hygiene and health education at Ohio State University (OSU)(1988) and an MS in Dental Hygiene from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. (1990), where she also served as a graduate research assistant for the School of Dental Hygiene.

Actively involved in student mentoring as well as curriculum development throughout her career, Ms. Nathe has previously served as assistant professor and public health coordinator for Fones School of Dental Hygiene at the University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Conn., as well as an adjunct assistant professor for the School of Dental Hygiene at her alma mater, Old Dominion University.

As an educator and a dental hygiene professional, Ms. Nathe's active involvement in the field has led to numerous accolades. She is the recipient of distinguished and outstanding alumni awards from each of the schools she has attended, was named an RDH Key Influencer by RDH magazine, was nominated to Sigma Phi Alpha, the Dental Hygiene Honor Society, was the first place recipient of the Apple for the Teacher Excellence in Teaching Award in 1996, and has received state-level recognition by the New Mexico Dental Hygienists' Association (NMDHA) and the Connecticut Dental Hygienists' Association CDHA). As a graduate student, she was honored to become part of Omicron Delta Kappa (National Leadership Honor Society) and Alpha Eta Society (National Scholastic Homor Society for the Allied Health Professions), and was named in Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.

An active member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH) and American Dental Education Association (ADEA), Ms. Nathe has also served in numerous capacities in association, state and federal government and private industry initiatives to improve oral health, including as the National Head Start Consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services and work with Operation Smile. Since 1997, her efforts have secured more than $525,000 in funding for need-based dental hygiene scholarships.

In addition, Ms. Nathe keeps busy on the lecture, publishing and research circuits. She is the author of two editions of Dental Public Health: Contemporary Practice for the Dental Hygienist (Prentice Hall, 2005 & 2001), has contributed chapters to several books and has an extensive list of articles in dental hygiene publications. She offers editorial input to publications including: Journal of Dental Hygiene, RDH, ACCESS (clinical publication of the American Dental Hygienists' Association), Dental Health, International Journal of Dental Hygiene, Contemporary Oral Hygiene, Journal of Practical Hygiene, and Contact International (scientific publication of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists).

There is a reason Ms. Nathe is so involved in professional activities beyond her responsibilities at UNM. "I feel passionately that student dental hygienists and practicing dental hygienists understand the opportunities available to dental hygienists and the responsibilities that go along with these opportunities," Ms. Nathe recently told

Ms. Nathe & Her Career

Tell us about your career in postsecondary dental hygiene education. What led you to the field of dental hygiene education?

I decided that I wanted to teach dental hygiene the moment I interviewed for dental hygiene school. I was able to watch students in clinic and the director of the program operate. I then thought I would love to work in that setting….it seemed so alive and exciting.

What do you enjoy most about your academic career and your patient care activities as a dental hygienist and the UNM Division of Dental Hygiene Clinic Manager?

The tremendous opportunities that it has afforded me. We started this clinic over six years ago, and I truly enjoy the patient care.

Describe a typical day (or week) of work for you as Division of Dental Hygiene Graduate Program Director, Clinic Manager and Associate Professor at University of New Mexico. What are your key responsibilities?

I teach, coordinate the graduate program and clinical affairs at UNM. Basically, beside the teaching and management activities, I work on research and committee charges. Additionally, I provide patient care one day per week.

You are a member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association, International Federation of Dental Hygienists and the American Dental Education Association. How is such membership important to your academic career?

I am particularly active in ADHA and IFDH. I believe that it is so rewarding. If you are interested in making big changes in national and international dental health, then these associations are the place to be. It is wonderful to work collaboratively with other hygienists to try to find solutions to major issues we are facing in dental care delivery.

In addition to serving in numerous capacities for the professional organizations, you are involved with numerous public health initiatives. What drives you to be so professionally active?

At the beginning of my career I had the opportunity to work with Operation Smile and travel to three developing countries. I think that is really when I became passionate about the social aspect of dental health care. We are so fortunate in the United States to have dental hygiene and we really don't even realize it. However, we need to strengthen our dental care delivery systems so that all Americans have access to dental hygienists, then we will really be able to expand the discipline to other countries.

You have authored two books, four book chapters and numerous articles, and currently serve as an editorial reviewer for several dental hygiene publications and journals. What drives your involvement in this area?

I feel passionately that student dental hygienists and practicing dental hygienists understand the opportunities available to dental hygienists and the responsibilities that go along with these opportunities. We know more about preventive health care than any other profession. Therefore, as a profession, we are responsible to make positive changes in dental health care.

You have received numerous distinguished alumni honors as well as other professional recognition. What do these honors mean to you on a personal and professional level?

It was a humbling experience and I was very honored to receive these awards from all of my alma maters.

What are some favorite projects that you've been involved with in your career? What makes them stand out?

Being involved in starting our community clinic at UNM and creating our graduate program here are UNM. Then I guess, my book, Dental Public Health. I wrote the first textbook by a dental hygienist that was the first to look at dental public health in a different light. I am very happy for that opportunity and hope that it truly makes a difference.

Academic Insights

How can educational institutions better highlight their strengths to potential students?

I think a key strength of an institution is the faculty. Really look at faculty when choosing your program. It is important that your faculty know what is going on in your community, and what is going on nationally and internationally.

How has the growth of the Internet impacted academia at the college/university level?

Oh yes, and I think for the most part for the better. It is much easier to write papers, review literature, etc. work collaboratively with classmates.

How can students in all types of disciplines expect e-Learning to impact their educations?

It is everywhere, and it is important to be computer literate.

How could the dental postsecondary educational system be changed to better serve students and society as a whole?

My opinion is that in dental hygiene we are offering associate's degrees or certificates that are not commensurate with the time and effort needed to complete the degree. Dental hygiene science is so expanded from the scientific foundation upon which dental hygiene was established in the early 1900's that truly dental hygiene education takes at least four years to complete. I concur with the recommendations of the American Dental Hygienists' Association's (ADHA) Focus on Advancing the Profession paper that states that we should implement the baccalaureate degree as the entry point for dental hygiene practice within five years.

Education Advice

You built on a dental hygiene associate degree to earn a BS and than an MS in dental hygiene. Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?

I loved dental hygiene, which is why I decided to pursue a BS and MS in Dental Hygiene. However, I was able to have a double major for my BS which was in Health Education. I would not change a thing; I love the path I took!

What factors should students consider when choosing a dental hygiene school or program?

Their ultimate goals in life are the key factors. At some point they may want to diversify, and obtaining a BS degree is important for that. Also, be flexible, moving for an education is not a bad move, although it may be difficult.

How can students considering an education and career in dental hygiene assess their aptitude for the field?

Psychomotor, social and intellectual skills are all important.

You coordinate the degree completion program at UNM. What advantages are offered to those who go on from a certificate or AA program to earn a bachelor's?

More career opportunities and career re-motivation!

How do dental hygiene certificate programs at technical colleges differ from those offered by institutions that confer degrees?

A bachelor's degree provides more opportunities and I have never heard a dental hygienist with a BS degree unhappy that they chose it. However, I do know many hygienists that have AS Degrees or certificates that would like to further their educations.

What can students applying to dental hygiene programs expect during the admissions process?

Generally, dental hygiene is a competitive field and you must have good grades, especially in the sciences.

How should students expect the curriculum to prepare them meet the trends and challenges the field of dental hygiene faces over the next decade?

Again, ADHA's Focus on Advancing the Profession eloquently states that one of our professional aims is to develop a dental hygiene labor force that keeps pace with the genetic revolution and other technological advances.

Any tips for students as they transition into college/university life?

Enjoy it and realize that this is great opportunity to learn. Focus on having fun learning and the grades will follow.

Dental Hygiene Industry Trends, Information & Advice

How can the reality of a career as a dental hygienist differ from typical expectations?

There is a huge responsibility associated with working as a health care provider and that is something you don't always feel until you begin practicing.

What are the best ways to land a job as a dental hygienist?

It depends on which type of job you are interested in. Some work best by word of mouth; others may be position announcements, etc.

How available are internships or other hands-on learning experiences?

They are very common in BS and MS programs.

How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will develop over the next five years?

The opportunities keep growing and forecasts for dental hygiene are excellent.

What can recent dental hygiene school graduates expect as a salary range starting out?

That depends on the region of the country in which you plan to practice. RDH magazine does an annual survey.

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the overall field of dentistry that will impact the dental hygiene profession?

Advanced dental hygiene practitioner will definitely have the most felt positive impact. This provider level will be advanced-level dental hygienists that can bring care to those without access.

Do you feel that is important to be passionate about the field of dental hygiene in order to be successful?

Passion is necessary, absolutely!

Closing Remarks

What other career advice can you offer future dental hygienists?

Make your opportunities happen and you will be able to make a difference in at least one life.

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