Dental school alumna Dr. Jessica Rickert receives prestigious Gies Award from ADEA7 min read
Ann Arbor, Mich., March 22, 2022 – School of Dentistry alumna Dr. Jessica Rickert was presented with one of the top honors bestowed by the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) during the organization’s annual conference in Philadelphia Monday evening.
Rickert, a 1975 graduate of the dental school, received the William J. Gies Award for Achievement for her tireless advocacy of diversity in dentistry and especially the need for more American Indian dentists. It was one of seven Gies Awards presented for Vision, Innovation and Achievement to individuals, institutions and organizations by ADEA. The organization’s members include all 78 U.S. and Canadian dental schools, more than 800 allied and advanced dental education programs, more than 50 corporations and approximately 18,000 individuals.
Rickert, a member of the Prairie Band Pottawatomi Nation, was the first female American Indian dentist when she graduated from U-M. Now retired from the practice of dentistry, she continues to frequently travel from her home in Traverse City, Michigan, to speak on diversity issues at conferences and educational institutions around the country. A founding board member of the Society of American Indian Dentists, she emphasizes the need to improve education for all ages of American Indian children so that they have a strong foundation for continuing into higher education and applying to dental schools or other professional schools.
In an introductory video during the award ceremony, Jane Grover of the American Dental Association, said Rickert is a visionary who sees what is possible. “She has made an impact and offered a guide map for inclusive dental education that prompts a greater awareness and understanding in the dental community of what diversity and inclusion truly is,” said Grover, a 1979 U-M DDS alumna and Director of the Council for Advocacy for Access and Prevention for the ADA.
Dental School Dean Laurie McCauley said Rickert leads by example. “Her passion lies in her desire to educate and change perceptions about what people can do, about what they can be and the impact they can have on others,” McCauley said in the introduction. “The work that she has done is truly just beginning, and we need more like her to continue to shape the future of dentistry and dental education.”
In thanking ADEA for the award, Rickert shared beliefs from her native heritage related to the theme of individuals working together to leave a collective legacy. She cited a quote attributed to Chief Sitting Bull from 1870: “Let us put our hearts and minds together and see what kind of life we can build for our children.” She said the education of youth of all races and ethnicities is vital and must be developed by many individuals, just as a river is made of individual drops of water but becomes a powerful force. Indigenous people believe they are connected to those of the last seven generations, she said. “And what we do today will have an impact seven generations hence. What will that impact be?”
In a recent interview before the Gies Award presentation, Rickert said she prefers the term “pathfinder” for her work with colleagues in the Society of American Indian Dentists and other organizations. She notes there are only 450 American Indian dentists in the country, when several thousand would be the corresponding ratio for the number of white dentists compared to the white population of the country. Part of the society’s role is providing role models for young American Indians so that they can imagine being dentists. The greater challenge comes in changing an educational system that doesn’t adequately prepare American Indian children for general higher education, let alone the more rigorous curricula required for professional schools like dentistry.
“We want them to be prepared, so that when they get to be 16-, 17-, 18-years-old and think they could be a professional, then they could actually make that decision because they’ve had the necessary education,” she said. “Somehow we have to reach those kids and let them know it is time to open up the roads to the future, not close them off. The only thing I can do is let these students know that dentistry is a great career and that the dental schools in this country are excellent. And that they can have a fantastic career and life. And this is what you have to do to prepare for that.”
For the last four years, Rickert has been a consultant for Delta Dental of Michigan, developing programs and outreach to American Indian tribes in the state – there are 14 – to emphasize the importance of good oral healthcare and how to obtain it. She creates written material and makes presentations to groups around the state, sometimes coordinating with others to translate documents into native languages. In addition to promoting good oral health, the work allows her to have a presence among young students who may someday decide to follow her into dentistry.
One of the motivations for her continued work in this area came when she retired from dental practice in 2010 and began to do more research on issues related to dentistry and American Indians. Her distinction as the first female American Indian dentist when she graduated in 1975 was well known, but she discovered that all these years later she is the only American Indian dentist in Michigan. “That’s a long time for me to be the only American Indian dentist in the state of Michigan. That has to change.”
ADEA describes the annual William J. Gies Awards for Vision, Innovation and Achievement as a “catalyst for change – to encourage new ideas, generate opportunities and tackle issues facing the not-so-distant future of dental education. It’s a platform to accelerate innovation by coalescing diverse minds around common goals that improve oral and systemic health and move our communities forward.” The awards recognize the vision and commitment to bring new ideas and better solutions forward in dental education and the dental professions. The awards embody the ideals set forth more than 90 years ago by dental education pioneer William J. Gies, Ph.D.
Dr. Todd V. Ester, Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the U-M School of Dentistry, was one of the presenters featured on the ADEA video introducing the Gies Award recipients.
More information on Dr. Rickert is available on the website of the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry here. The page includes a link to a new coloring page project for kids and additional reading resources.
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (734) 615-1971.