Student Profile: Holly Rizzo sets aside performing – at least for now – to focus on her career as a dentist10 min read
This profile is one in an ongoing series highlighting School of Dentistry alumni, donors and students.
Holly Rizzo is a few months away from earning her DDS degree at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and on her way to a career as a pediatric dentist. As she finishes the many clinical and academic requirements in her last year of dental school before starting a pediatric residency, she is enthusiastic about the profession and especially the opportunity for a career treating the oral health needs of children.
That commitment to dentistry might be a surprising career choice based on the talent she exhibited and the enjoyment she experienced in a very different arena. Growing up on the west coast of Florida near Tampa Bay and Bradenton, she was a musical performer from an early age. Starting when she was 5 or 6 years old, she joined her older sister Trina as they became fixtures in the area’s musical theater productions. For many years, they were often in the same community theater and professional shows, performing in prominent roles, if not the lead roles.
Name a famous musical and Holly has likely sung in it – Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Rent, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and Hairspray, to name a few.
The sisters’ singing talent gained wider attention when they were invited several times to sing the National Anthem as a duet for the three Tampa Bay professional sports franchises – the Buccaneers of the National Football League, the Rays of Major League Baseball and the Lightning of the National Hockey League. The sisters enriched their stadium performances by using sign language as they sang the anthem and, during the baseball games, a second song, God Bless America.
Although Holly loved performing and continued to do so through her freshman year of college, she also had always thought about healthcare as a career option in a family where her father is a radiologist and her mother a nurse. In her first year at the University of California at Los Angeles, she was majoring in biology with an eye toward dentistry, while logging countless hours rehearsing and performing in a campus musical. After that first year, pragmatism won out over idealism because she knew she needed excellent grades in her tough science courses to gain admission to dental schools. “I was balancing taking organic chemistry with singing and dancing every night until midnight for rehearsals for weeks on end,” she said. “I didn’t have the energy to do both of those things.”
She also realized that dentistry would be a much more stable and accessible profession than trying to work her way up in the performing arts. Her decision to focus on her pre-dental coursework paid off. She was accepted into the U-M dental school, one of the top dental schools in the country. She misses not performing over the last seven years, but recently filled that need by singing at a dental school talent show. And she knows the option remains to break back into community theater once she is settled into the practice of dentistry.
In a recent interview, excerpted below in a question-and-answer format, Holly talked about the importance of dentistry, why she is involved in so many dental school organizations and events, and her future career plans after she graduates with her DDS degree next May.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue dentistry instead of another healthcare field?
A: As a child, I had a very positive experience at my pediatric dental office. I performed in the local community theater growing up and my pediatric dental team was always there on opening night to cheer me on. I looked forward to my dental visits because of the compassion and support I received in and out of the dental chair, making me certain that I wanted to pursue dentistry and, specifically, pediatric dentistry.
Q: You seem to be involved in lots of organizations and activities at the dental school and beyond. Can you provide a short list and explain why you are so engaged?
A: Planning director for the 2022 “Give Kids a Smile” Clinic that provided free dental care for area children; board positions for two years and president last year of the school chapter of the American Association of Pediatric Dentists; chairside assistant at Ann Arbor Pediatric Dentistry; social chair for the DDS Class of 2023; student panelist and interviewer for the school’s DDS admissions process; volunteer tutor at the Peace Neighborhood Center; volunteer mentor for underclass dental students in various capacities throughout the school. In dental school, I realized how much I enjoy being involved in my academic community, especially mentorship for younger students. Getting into dental school is challenging, and being in dental school is even harder! I’m lending any advice I can to students going through the same challenges that I had early in dental school.
Q: Describe the more formal mentoring project you started for the school’s Pathways Program, which requires dental students to investigate areas of their choosing within dentistry that go beyond the core curriculum.
A: For my Pathways project, I collaborate with the Pre-Dental Association of undergraduates here at U-M. I survey both our dental students and pre-dental undergrads to find out their interests, where they are from, what specialties they might pursue. I then personally hand-pair each undergraduate mentee with a mentor student here at the school. There were about 80 pairs this year and about the same in previous years. As mentors, the dental students can use their skills in teaching and give back to the community. For the pre-dental students, the program aims to reduce barriers to access and provides them information about what a dental student looks like, how to get into dental school, or even if dentistry is something they are interested in at all. The undergraduates range from freshmen who are somewhat interested in dentistry, to juniors and seniors who have taken the Dental Admission Test and are about to submit their dental school application. They need someone to give them serious advice about interview tips, reading their personal statement, what kind of questions to ask during interviews, financial aid and so forth. I created this because I would have found it very useful when I was considering dental school.
Q: What has been the best part of dental school so far?
A: “Give Kids a Smile Day” last spring – both the planning and the event itself. The committee and I spent months planning down to every small detail. To see it come to fruition, especially as it was the first GKAS since before the pandemic, was extremely rewarding. The event was wildly successful – we treated 88 children and recruited more than 150 volunteers, both record numbers for the event. Seeing the dental community come together for a day of community service to help the kids was incredibly heart-warming and an experience that I will always hold near and dear to my heart.
Q: Have you determined what you’ll do after graduating?
A: I’m currently applying to pediatric dental residency programs across the country and will hopefully spend the next few years training to become a pediatric dentist. I absolutely love working with kids in the dental chair because I can use creativity to make dentistry fun for them. For example, using storytelling when I give them local anesthesia; we tell the tooth a bedtime story since it’s “going to sleep.” It’s silly, but it really works to relax the patients! I also hope that every child who comes into my chair will learn how important it is to take care of their teeth and take those principles of dental hygiene into their adulthood to prevent oral disease.
Q: Why is dentistry an important profession?
A: Dentistry is so essential to the overall systemic health and mental health of our patients. During my external rotation in Battle Creek, Michigan, I was completing full mouth extractions for a 35-year-old woman with rampant decay who would require full dentures. She was crying in my dental chair saying that she wished she had started taking care of her teeth earlier in her life. We see this so often as dental students and we always wish there was some way we could have helped them before they got to this point of irreversible decay or periodontitis leading to edentulism. This is another one of the reasons that prevention in pediatric dentistry is so important to me. Teaching people at a young age how important it is to care for their teeth can prevent serious depression, malnutrition and low self-esteem that can occur later in life as a result of tooth loss. It could have been prevented with proper home dental care and regular visits to the dentist.
Q: Your life philosophy in three sentences or less.
A: There is a quote from the Disney film Mary Poppins that I live by in regards to my dental career: “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!” When I find myself getting bogged down by a heavy work load or a challenging patient, it’s important to try and find the fun in anything I do.
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare 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 email@example.com, or (734) 615-1971.