Sara Mantlik, a 21-year-old rising senior at Arizona State University, could have earned the one extra credit hour she needed by volunteering at a local science center or participating in one of the dozens of other projects available through the school's community services program. But instead of playing tour guide, the mechanical engineering major joined up with three fellow engineering students, an architecture student, and a mentor getting a PhD in construction management to take on a much larger challenge: bringing free quality dental care to the poor. The name of their project, appropriately, is Engineering Smiles. Dental health might seem like a strange focus for a group of engineers in training, but Mantlik and her team aren't in the business of root canals. Instead, she and fellow students Nick Kemme, Jackie Janssen, and Fionnuala McPeake, as well as recent graduate Christine Bui and PhD candidate John Cribbs, are designing and will eventually build a mobile dental clinic to be used by IMAHelps — a nonprofit that organizes medical humanitarian missions. If all goes as planned, the mobile clinic will be ready by May 2016, first for field use in Arizona, and then as both a clinic and training center for dental students in Nicaragua. Mantlik, who has been the group's project manager for almost two years now, says she was drawn to building the clinic because of its international reach, and also because, "I knew I would be helping people." For her, the cause is also personal. "When I was younger in elementary school, I had horrible teeth," says Mantlik. "My teeth were massive. They were way too big for my mouth. And one kid I will never forget would always call me 'beaver' because I had such big teeth and they were so crooked." She was eventually able to get braces and sports a very straight smile these days, but she knows she’s one of the lucky ones.
Even in these developing countries, if you are missing teeth or your teeth are rotting, people still can’t get jobs because they don’t have that smile. It still affects them like it would us here.”
Photo courtesy ASU Engineering Smiles
It’s perhaps too easy to dismiss dental care as being secondary to other health issues — especially on a global scale. But having, say, a cleft lip or other serious tooth, mouth, or jaw issues can make it difficult for people to get work, and in some cases, they might be shunned, says Mantlik. "One story that touched my heart was about a lady with a cleft lip," she says. "Her teeth got so bad, they were rotting, and with her cleft lip it got much worse. The community she lived in actually banned her. ... She wasn't able to work. She was homeless. No one would accept her." Mantlik says the woman eventually received care from IMAHelps and was given a chance to start over. Designing the clinic hasn't been easy. To start, Mantlik had to figure out what exactly IMAHelps needs — which turns out to be a mobile, transitional space that can fit three to four dental stations, plus a sanitation area. Natural light is a must, plus smart sources of energy to keep the clinic functioning wherever it goes. After much trial and error—the team toyed with the idea of using an RV (too expensive) or a charter bus (too small) — they settled on a trailer, and made plans to include solar panels that will provide up to 50 percent of the clinic’s power, full water and air-conditioning systems, and an automated generator.
"The process was one that involved consistently questioning the design," says Bui, 21, who received her BS in architecture just a few weeks ago and plans to continue with the project. "What medical tools belong to a sterilization space? How do you fulfill ADA requirements within the constraints set by an elongated trailer? Is the space inviting for children who may have never been exposed to the privilege of dental care?" Also, she says, they needed to "make the space both affordable and quick to produce."
The current design includes a trailer with moveable wooden partitions so that dentists can adjust the size of the space according to the needs of each mission, a long line of windows to allow for sunlight, and ultra durable rubber flooring. There are medical-specific considerations, too. For instance, "the edges of the floor and the countertops wrap up against the edges of the space in order to prevent bacteria from seeping into loose seams," says Bui. In other words, a well-planned, clean space that's safe for medical use. To make the mobile clinic a reality, Bui, Mantlik, and their team are now fundraising the $200,000 it will take to actually build their mobile dental office. The urgency is real: "Right now, when the dentists go to the hospitals, they don’t have dental rooms," she says. "The dentist will actually rent a hallway or a storage room and make it into a makeshift dental space. They will just use lawn chairs and a fan because there’s usually not air conditioning." The Engineering Smiles team is aiming to raise all necessary funds by November, so that they can start building in January 2016. Donations can be made through the team's website. "Global health and dental care are connected to a slew of issues," says Bui. "The mobile health clinic provides access both to individuals who are not located closely to dental care, as well as those who cannot afford it. It guarantees dignity by allowing people the ability to receive basic human services ... [and] provides them with strength, allowing them to pursue work." Mantlik, who obsessed over Legos and math models as a kid, is eager to roll up her sleeves and get to work. "We're all really passionate about this project," she says. "I want that gratification of knowing I'm actually changing someone's life."