Blooming from the STEM: Artistry in dentistry

Sheena Vaswani (‘04) delves into the combination of art and dentistry, all in her hometown

Sheena Vaswani (’04) discovered her interest in dentistry as early as high school. “I realized that dentistry was a marriage between my interests, and I didn’t necessarily have to give up the artistic side of things,” Vaswani said. (Provided by Sheena Vaswani (’04))

Like most Harker students, Sheena Vaswani (‘04) is a native of the Bay Area, born and raised in Los Altos. However, after finishing high school, she felt the need to explore outside her bubble. And so she did, traveling through her education as she pursued her dream of being a dentist. After working for 14 years in New York, Tennessee and Chicago, she eventually realized: the Bay was her home. Vaswani returns with her own dental practice right where she grew up.

When it came to deciding on a career path, Vaswani knew healthcare was her primary interest and began exploring it in high school with a neuropsychology internship. However, after observing a  lack of patient–doctor connection and witnessing how doctors stopped regularly engaging with patients after treatment, she realized she wanted a profession that allowed her to check in with her patients on a more consistent basis. She found exactly that in dentistry. She visited her dentist for her first cavity filling with apprehension, but she immediately felt greeted with comfort and care during the process. 

“I made the dentist show me everything in a mirror,” Vaswani said. “As each step happened, I made them explain to me what is happening. Why does the needle have to be used, and when a needle is being used, why are you going there versus somewhere else? It took a whole different spin on what I felt going to the dentist was, and so I saw it for the first time as something more science-y. I also saw it as she was trying to build a connection with me.”

During her filling, Vaswani developed another connection to dentistry, one that encompassed the other part of her life: art. When Vaswani joined Harker in her sophomore year, she found herself drawn to design, painting and sculpting, which she knew she didn’t want to give up when she chose a career. 

“I realized that dentistry was a marriage between my interests, and I didn’t necessarily have to give up the artistic side of things,” Vaswani said. “Now I see it in a very different way than I did before at that time. The filling is a mini sculpture, doing a temporary crown is a mini sculpture … you’re using your hands to create something.”

In 2004, Vaswani’s class became the third to graduate from the upper school, and she chose to study at University of California Berkeley. There, she majored in Nutritional Sciences, exploring a world she found to have an impact close to home. 

I realized that dentistry was a marriage between my interests, and I didn’t necessarily have to give up the artistic side of things. Now I see it in a very different way than I did before at that time. The filling is a mini sculpture, doing a temporary crown is a mini sculpture … you’re using your hands to create something.”

— Sheena Vaswani ('04)

“I grew up with my grandmother in the house, and my grandmother had diabetes, so I’ve been exposed to diabetes since I was five years old,” Vaswani said. “I would see her poke herself on a day-to-day basis, I saw how diligently she handled her own foods and diet, dietary restrictions that she had and how compliant she was about it. So when I stepped out into the real world, I realized not every single person is compliant, and they have more control over their conditions if they tweak specific things.”

Vaswani realized most people were not engaged with their nutrition habits and instead pushed them to the side, making her want to help them live a healthy lifestyle, like her grandmother. Though diabetes education did not end up being Vaswani’s career choice, she realized she could help patients who faced hesitancy with healthcare practices. When she reached dental school at New York University (NYU), Vaswani reached another difficult decision of choosing what program to pursue. Once again, she found her family and her past influencing and driving her choices for her career.

“My aunt had seizure disorder growing up, and I was very front and center in regards to what it is that she went through and how it affected the family. I started to go down the path of wanting to do a little bit more in public health and a little bit more with this intellectual developmental disability group of patients, so I did this residency program to learn more about sedation. I got this invaluable experience on this patient population that I never would have had otherwise.”

After receiving her sedation license and practicing for a few years in Chicago and Tennessee, Vaswani returned to the Bay Area in 2018 to buy her own practice and now owns Los Altos Family Smiles. She appreciates being able to serve the community she grew up in and especially enjoys meeting patients she knows.

“When you see people who you knew back in the day, or who you had some sort of connection to in a different world than you’re living in right now, that feels really cool,” Vaswani said.“There are so many kids that came from Saratoga as well, and I was seeing their parents, and they loved it because they felt like they knew me for 20 years.”

Vaswani hopes to reach out to more youth in the Bay Area as she grows her practice, inviting them into the world of dentistry and sharing the work she loves. She encourages anyone who has the interest to explore it and truly learn what being a dentist entails.

“I’m super passionate about what I do and I love it, and if I could share that with someone and if it gives them an idea of something that they would not normally have had an idea about, then that’s great,” Vaswani said.