Erika Pino knows a thing or two about long days and hard work. During her four years at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM), she rose sometimes as early as 4 a.m., often after only a few hours of sleep, to commute from Rhode Island to the Tufts Health Sciences campus in downtown Boston.
Pino’s commute tested her endurance, she said, and going back to school at an older age demonstrated tenacity. A few illnesses during her time in school tested her perseverance.
But she has pushed through all of it.
“Some people doubted that I was going to be able to keep up with my fellow students, who are in their 20s,” said Pino, who would only confirm that she is “over 35” years old. “But I did it, and it has definitely made me a lot stronger, a lot wiser, and I met great people who are going to be lifelong friends.”
Here are three things to know about Pino:
1. She regularly commuted to Boston from Providence, Rhode Island.
Pino opted to remain in Rhode Island after her acceptance to TUSDM and took innumerable one-hour-and-16-minute commuter rail rides north to Boston, usually five days a week. Often, she woke up before dawn and wouldn’t return home until 7 or 8 p.m., sometimes not going to sleep until 2 a.m. after household chores and homework.
Pino’s reason for staying in Providence: she didn’t want to upend the support systems in place for her young daughter. “I sacrificed myself to make sure she’s well taken care of,” Pino said of her now 11-year old daughter. With Pino’s boyfriend at home and with family nearby, Pino said she knew her daughter would be well taken care of while Pino herself was at school.
Pino expressed gratitude toward Robert Kasberg, associate dean for student affairs at the dental school, who lives in southern Massachusetts on the Rhode Island border, for his overall support—and for helping her learn the commuter rail.
“Dr. Kasberg has been there for me since day one,” she said. “He even gave me guidance on how to navigate the commuter rail system—all the tips that made it possible for me to never miss an exam when they’re at 7 a.m.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, provided a bit of a silver lining for Pino because she got an unexpected short break from the long commute. For about three months in early to mid- 2020, she enjoyed spending time during the week with her young daughter when dental school classes went remote at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I was grateful because I was able to spend some time with my daughter, playing with her, walking around. We would ride our bikes. I was very happy I had that time with her,” Pino said.
2. Her work as a dental hygienist proved to be a big asset.
Pino worked for 15 years as a dental hygienist prior to her schooling at Tufts, invaluable experience for her new career. “I knew how to speak with patients. I knew the terminology and a lot of the reasoning behind certain treatments already,” Pino said. “A lot of that experience really helped me get through the first few years, and especially now with patient care as a third- and fourth-year student.”
The doctors with whom she worked when she was a hygienist encouraged her to continue her education because “they knew I would be a great dentist,” Pino said. The doctors could see her knack for knowing when a patient wanted to learn more about a certain procedure and that she worked well with anxious or scared patients.
“So many people really feel fearful” of dental procedures, she said. “It’s great when you know how to de-escalate that and help them through to get the care that they need.”
3. She’s had three serious illnesses during her schooling at Tufts.
Pino’s path in dental school has included a few health-related twists. In her second year, she had an emergency appendectomy. During her third year, Pino had precancerous tumors removed from her breast and missed three months of school to recover. Last December, she contracted COVID-19, spent a day in the hospital and many days at home battling the virus; about four months later, she still faces some residual side effects.
She cited practice coordinators David Paul, D89, Alex Miele, D83, and Denisa Stasa, D10, for keeping in touch via email, sometimes daily, to be of assistance during her medical leaves. They made sure Pino was able to complete her requirements so she could graduate on time.
Now, as she prepares to shift back to professional life, Pino has received three job offers, one as far south as North Carolina. In mid-April, she accepted a role at a private dental practice in Providence. Her long-term goal is to buy into a dental practice and be a partner.
Finding the right job after dental school was another challenge Pino met with fortitude. After all, she concluded, “I don’t quit easily, and I can get through anything.”
Editor’s note: This year’s D21 Senior Class Gift will support a scholarship for a deserving student who has endured extraordinary personal adversity during their time in dental school. The class has designated the scholarship in honor of Pino as "a true example of what it means to excel despite any hardships thrown her way."
Profile written by Meredith Berg.
For more student profiles and full Commencement coverage, visit commencement.tufts.edu/coverage/dentalmedicine2021.