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How a childhood visit to the dentist changed a life

There’s an amusing reason why Kim Austin decided to study dentistry

Kim Austin portrait with white coat
Kim Austin’s lifelong love of learning inspired her to follow in her educator mother’s footsteps. (Photo/John Skalicky)

Inspiration is all around.

For Kim Austin, sitting in the dentist’s chair as a 4-year-old girl, it was right under her nose.

“My dentist used a soap that I really liked to smell. I wanted to be able to use that soap, too,” she explained, chuckling at her youthful naïveté. “That’s what I thought dentistry was all about. I wanted to be able to use that soap and treat people’s oral conditions.”

In the years since, Austin has managed to do just that, earning a doctor of dental surgery degree and an advanced specialty certificate in periodontics.

Now she inspires future dental professionals as an associate professor of clinical dentistry and assistant dean for diversity at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

Path to independence

Austin was born in Lynwood to a merchant seaman father and an educator mother who always encouraged her daughter to pursue academics.

“At the time I was coming up, women really had to be independent. Just getting married and staying home wasn’t enough,” Austin said. “My mother really pushed for education because she knew that would lead to independence.”

When it came time to enroll in college, the science-minded student was encouraged to apply to USC.

Austin’s mother, a Trojan alumnus several times over, championed the local university, dreaming that her daughter would become a USC scion.

“She loved this institution and is the reason I came here for undergrad,” Austin said.

Austin earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USC and worked in the mental health field before heading to the East Coast to pursue a doctor of dental surgery degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

She practiced as a general dentist for five years before returning to USC to earn an advanced certificate in periodontology, citing the renown of the periodontology program at USC as one of the reasons she returned to the West Coast.

“It was just a well-run, organized program,” she said. “They really made you study and exposed you to a lot of philosophies that made sense for patients.”

Making mom proud

After finishing her studies at USC’s dental school, Austin followed in her mother’s footsteps as an educator, becoming one of a select group of dentists to become part-time faculty members.

In 2003, she became a full-time faculty member at the school, teaching periodontology-related classes to dental hygiene, doctor of dental surgery and advanced specialty students.

“My biggest reward with teaching,” she said, “is that our students recognize the hard work we’re putting into their educations and they take advantage of that.”

One of those students is Kenny Robles DDS ’17, who studied under Austin in the periodontology module during his second year of dental school.

“Dr. Austin engages you in dialogue meant to make you think,” he said. “She reflects on the pros and cons of each action and always prepares you for what’s to come.”

Kaitie Beetner, another of Austin’s periodontolgy module students, added: “She teaches us to be exceptional dentists. But more importantly, she encourages us to be upstanding and honest individuals even outside our professional field.”

USC student Raivyn Conway agreed: “Rarely does an instructor inspire students to continuously strive to do better simply by radiating their own positive energy. Dr. Austin is one of few professors I’ve had who genuinely cares about the prosperity of her students and puts the time and effort to see we all succeed.”

Ever focused on the next task, Austin doesn’t often take a moment to reflect on her accomplishments. But when asked what makes her most proud, her mind drifts to what her mother, who passed away at a young age, might have thought of her career path.

“I would love to have seen the look on my mother’s face when she heard I was faculty,” she said. “I know it certainly would’ve made her proud.”

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