Artistic Endeavors

By Ashley Musick

From dentistry to doodling, alumni and students of the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry have a variety of creative interests and talents. Alumnus Ben Magleby ’05, Graduate Orthodontic residents Christine ’17 and Michelle Stepanek ’17 and Bella Yu, a student in the Class of 2020, all express their creativity through writing and published children’s books. Through exploring different mediums using their artistic abilities, their passion for writing has led these authors in directions they never expected.

Dr. Ben Magleby ’05, author of Sugarbug Doug: All About Cavities, Plaque and Teeth and Dr. Ben’s Dental Guide, has always loved all forms of art. Originally from Portland, Oregon, he completed a bachelor’s degree in visual arts at Brigham Young University before graduating from the Arthur A. School of Dentistry.

As a child, Magleby enjoyed drawing and reading books. Having never considered himself a writer, let alone a future author, Magleby was drawn to the emotion and story that illustrators could capture through an image or in the expression of a character. He was especially impressed by authors who illustrated their own work.

While earning his undergraduate degree as an art major, Magleby began to have doubts about a career as an artist or illustrator and began working as a teaching assistant for a Biology 100 class, where the professor asked him to illustrate handouts for the course. He loved how much easier it was to teach basic science ideas using diagrams, and began to look into science as a career. He soon discovered that dentistry would allow him to incorporate both art and science, as well as his passion for helping others.

It was Magleby’s experiences in dental school that inspired him to write and illustrate Sugarbug Doug, a storybook to help teach dental disease prevention to children. Magleby recalls, “When I was in dental school, we learned all about the bacteria that cause dental caries. We called them ‘sugarbugs’ and would try to teach our pediatric patients about them, what foods grow cavities and why oral hygiene is so important. A friend organized a service project to an elementary school and asked me to draw a small pamphlet about sugarbugs. It really began then.”

Starting with his original pamphlet from dental school, Magleby spent the next few years working on turning it into a book. When asked about the process, he commented, “Looking back, I am glad that it took so long—putting it down and coming back to it later offered a fresh perspective. The process helped me edit the book and end up with a better, cleaner result.”

After deciding he was ready to publish his book, Magleby sent the manuscript to a few children’s book companies, receiving about 10 rejection letters before deciding to self-publish through a subsidiary of Amazon. For Magleby, this was the perfect solution, as he could keep all the rights and print all the copies he needed for patients, and he wouldn’t have to wait for an acceptance from a publishing company.

When asked why he chose to write a children’s book, Magleby explained, “What I wanted to accomplish fit in a children’s book format. I wanted it to be short, easy to understand and have lots of illustrations. I did not want it to be intimidating or too long to read, for children or adults. A children’s book format forced me to keep things short, simple and to the point.”

He also adds, “I really wanted to target children, because with dental hygiene, as with most areas in health care, prevention is key. Perhaps the most important time that you can really make a difference in someone’s life is when a child is four to eight years old. That is when kids can really start to understand why oral hygiene is important, and can develop good habits that continue for their whole life. Hopefully, it is also before they have had any huge dental problems, and can prevent some expensive and scary dental experiences later in life.”

According to Magleby, the most rewarding thing about writing Sugarbug Doug is that after people read it, they tell him that they learned something new, or that their kids want to take better care of their teeth because of the book. As a dentist, Magleby found himself repeatedly explaining the same things to his adult patients. He notes, “Sometimes, I would find myself saying and drawing the same thing over and over again, so I thought, why not put that in a book?”

A few years later, he finished Dr. Ben’s Dental Guide, a guidebook focused on explaining dental treatments to adults. He found it fun and refreshing to explain different dental procedures or problems as simply as possible, and enjoyed drawing diagrams, collecting pictures and including X-rays to accompany all the different procedures in the book.

After dental school, Magleby served as a dentist in the U.S. Navy, training in the military’s Advanced Education in General Dentistry program and completing a tour in Iraq where he treated dental emergencies and visited local schools to teach children about oral health care. Upon finishing his military service, Magleby moved back to California to practice general dentistry in Fresno.

Magleby and his wife currently love living in the Central Valley with their three sons, where he continues to visit elementary schools to teach children about teeth, cavities and of course, sugarbugs.

Fangzhou (Bella) Yu, Class of 2020, has written and published a Chinese novel about a young girl’s coming-of-age journey, entitled The Mermaid and the Seaweed Palace. Born in the Shandong Province of China and raised by two doctors—her father a cardiac surgeon and her mother working in endocrinology—Yu has always been interested in pursuing a career in health care.

Growing up, Yu loved to read and write in her spare time, though she never expected to become an author. Having written the novel between 2007 and 2015, Yu describes writing as something she loves to do, but doesn’t want to feel pressured about—even if that pressure comes from herself. She mainly wants to enjoy the journey of the writing process, believing that the flexible schedule dentistry provides will encourage her to write more in the future.

She completed her undergraduate degree in molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and her master’s degree in biochemistry at Columbia University before enrolling in the DDS program at the Dugoni School of Dentistry. Yu also appreciates dentistry because of the hands-on experience it allows her and has enjoyed serving as the current vice president of the Global Exchange Club at the dental school. She plans to go into private practice immediately after graduating, but might decide to specialize once she has a better understanding of the different areas of dentistry through her studies and clinical experiences.

In addition to writing, one of her other hobbies is costume design—Chinese Qi Pao in particular. She designs and sews the traditional Chinese dresses herself and describes this labor-intensive endeavor as a great exercise in building patience.

When asked what inspires her to write, Yu replied that it is the people around her who spark her imagination. As she explains, “Each individual sparkles in his or her own unique way.” She first decided to turn her inspirations into a reality during high school and began to write stories for pleasure.

Yu describes her writing process as consisting mostly of research, explaining that she spent twice the time researching her characters as she did actually writing. Though she did not change much between her first and final drafts of the novel, Yu describes the most rewarding part of writing is the process of understanding and growing with her characters.

When it came time to publish her novel, Yu found the process difficult but not unexpectedly so. She contacted an editor herself to present the story, and it took several months before the novel could be published by Unity Press in China. Yu hopes to have the chance to write more in the future, and is still most interested in fiction.

Drs. Christine ’17 and Michelle Stepanek ’17, twin sisters and current residents in the dental school’s Graduate Orthodontic program, have authored and illustrated The Twin Teeth Trilogy, a children’s book series comprised of three stories: Once Upon a Tooth, Special Smiles and Brace Yourself.

Having learned Czech as their first language, the Stepanek sisters had a slower start when it came to reading and writing in English. Born in California but having spent summers in the Czech Republic, their passion for reading, writing and language drove them to quickly become fluent in English before progressing to learn Spanish as well.

The Stepanek sisters began their journey towards becoming orthodontists at an early age. Inspired by six years of braces that involved frequent visits to their orthodontist’s office, the positive energy and artistry demonstrated during their visits solidified their passion for orthodontics at age 10. In sixth grade, they declared orthodontics to be their career of choice and have never looked back.

During their volunteer work while completing their undergraduate education at University of California, Los Angeles, the Stepaneks began to recognize the lack of dental educational material available for children in the Czech Republic as well as in underserved populations of the Los Angeles area. This inspired them to write three children’s books focusing on dental education, each book influenced by different experiences.

The Stepaneks’ first book about oral health education, Once Upon a Tooth, was based on their volunteer work through the University of Southern California, Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry where they provided oral hygiene instruction to underprivileged children. Special Smiles was a result of dental school research that motivated the sisters to write a book to improve the self-confidence of children with cleft lip and palate. Their third book, Brace Yourself, is an orthodontic educational booklet influenced by their passion for becoming orthodontists and written as they began their residency applications.

For the sisters, the writing process involved a lot of brainstorming. Their books did not change much between the first and final drafts, as they carefully selected every word from the beginning so that only minor edits were needed before publication.

When asked to describe the most rewarding aspect of publishing their books, the sisters agreed that it was “seeing the faces on the children when they read our books. One of our favorite moments was when we were rotating through the Oral Surgery Clinic in dental school, and a boy with a cleft lip and palate was getting an extraction done in the clinic. He was very timid and scared, and as a distraction we read him the Special Smiles booklet, which he was fascinated by and which gave him the confidence to get the extraction without fear. Those moments make the hours spent writing and illustrating those books really worth it!”

Though they never anticipated becoming professional authors, the Stepaneks have always pursued creative outlets outside of academics. Their passion for drawing emerged during study breaks while in dental school, as they spent their free time illustrating what would eventually become their three published books. Extending this creativity to explore 3D design and printing, the Stepanek sisters have used their skills to create children’s finger puppet bite blocks that they are currently in the process of patenting.

Though they never anticipated becoming professional authors, the Stepanek sisters have always pursued creative outlets outside of academics.

The sisters have discussed writing a children’s book to accompany their patent-pending bite blocks, with the hope that the pairing could help turn a dental examination into a more entertaining, less frightening experience for patients. They are optimistic that once they graduate from the orthodontic residency and have more free time in their schedules, their writing itch will be back in full force.

Though dentistry is not always viewed as a creative profession, Drs. Ben Magleby, Michelle and Christine Stepanek, and Bella Yu have certainly proven otherwise. By applying their artistic and academic talents to educate and inspire children, these individuals have demonstrated that creativity is an integral part of dentistry that can positively impact patients and young readers both inside and outside of the dental office.