Meeting the need
By Karla Hignite
The professional pathway of Christina Meiners, DDS, FICD, began quite early.
“Probably while still in the womb,” joked Meiners. “My mom was pregnant with me when she was studying for her bachelor’s in nursing, and she would sing me lullabies while reading her anatomy textbooks.”
The daughter of migrant farmworkers, her mother was the first to pursue a higher education and the only one of nine children in her family to pursue a career in medicine, Meiners said.
“She started as a licensed vocational nurse and furthered her studies to serve as a registered nurse, but it was always a dream of hers that I would go beyond what she could. She would often say to me, ‘You can be the doctor I couldn’t be.’”
While Meiners initially set her sights on a pre-medical degree, the first deviation from those career aspirations came when she got braces as a teenager.
“I personally experienced being that kid behind the crooked smile,” she said. “The self confidence that came from seeing my new smile emerge had such a positive impact on me. I began to envision how I might help others feel that joy.”
So, Meiners decided to become an orthodontist.
Embrace the forks in the road
Before Meiners graduated from the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry in 2010, she earned her Bachelor of Science in biology degree in 2006 from The University of Texas at San Antonio Honors College. When she entered the Dental Early Acceptance Program at UTSA, she took part in various mission trips, including to several border towns throughout South Texas.
“Most of the undergraduate students might be asked to do blood pressure checks and to pass out toothbrushes,” said Meiners. “Because I spoke Spanish, I was asked to serve as a translator.”
Meiners found herself on the front lines working directly with the volunteer dentists.
“In explaining treatment options and relaying postop instructions to patients, I would see the tension that had been building while they waited in line just melt away,” said Meiners. “They saw in me someone who looked like them and could literally speak their language, and they were so grateful for that.”
Meiners knew then that she wanted to pursue public health dentistry.
Another stroke of serendipity came while Meiners was completing her coursework at UT Health San Antonio. One of her rotations took her to CommuniCare Health Centers.
“I loved the clinic setting and the people it served. After completing my rotation, the staff encouraged me to apply when I saw an opening.”
Each one teach one
Meiners has been working at CommuniCare for almost 10 years, and her experience has come full circle.
“I am now the adjoint faculty teaching UT Health San Antonio third- and fourth-year students who come to the clinic for their rotations,” she said.
At the East Campus Clinic, Meiners treats patients of all ages, from 6 months to adults in their 90s. She knows she is making a difference one patient at a time. Yet, Meiners is motivated by more than the opportunity to serve her patients. She wants to recruit them.
Doing whatever she can to promote diversity within the health care workforce is, for Meiners, a passion project.
“It hits home for me. Growing up in Weslaco, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley — only five minutes from the Mexican border — I didn’t see many Hispanic or female doctors. Now working in a clinic with five other female dentists and over 85% minority employees, I see that same surprised look from many of the parents who come to the clinic with their children. Many are just grateful to now see a dentist who shares not only their language but their culture,” she said.
Her assistant is a single mother of two whom Meiners recruited.
“When she first came to the clinic with her children, she would sit in the corner and ask about being a dental assistant. Then I began seeing her come in with her textbooks and in scrubs. I told her when she was finished with her studies she should apply to work at the clinic,” Meiners said.
She did. And now she is working on her prerequisites to apply to dental hygiene school.
Say “yes” to leadership
Her own experience has taught Meiners to embrace the mantra: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” That’s why professional mentorship and outreach have been so important to her.
While still in school, Meiners became a student member of the Hispanic Dental Association, transferring her membership upon graduation to one of the association’s professional membership chapters. She got involved on various committees, first at the local chapter level, then rising to serve at the national level — including her current role as an executive board trustee and president-elect, becoming one of the youngest to serve in that capacity in the association’s history.
A recipient of HDA’s National Service Recognition Award, Meiners currently chairs the organization’s service and outreach committee. Her term as president will begin in 2023, and the annual meeting over which she will preside next June will be held in San Antonio.
Meiners has maintained her volunteer work at the local level as well. In 2020, as a new mom, Meiners served as president of the San Antonio District Dental Society. Due to COVID-19, hers was the first virtual presidency in the chapter’s history, but Meiners didn’t let the pandemic delay her determination to advance the society’s leadership priorities, even if that meant highlighting for others the reality of work-life balance for today’s young leaders. One of her favorite pictures shows exactly what that balance looks like: In a photo taken by her husband, Meiners was hosting a webinar and on a committee phone call while simultaneously taking notes, eating dinner and trying to put her newborn daughter to sleep.
That same sort of intentionality drove Meiners to choose diversity and inclusion as the theme for her SADDS presidency. She created and chaired the society’s diversity and inclusion committee with the aim of fostering a more inclusive environment and increasing diversity at all levels of leadership within the organization. In her president’s speech she said, “As a young, Hispanic female, I hope to not only be an inspiration for but also a reflection of the future of dental leadership.”
Meiners believes young professionals don’t need to wait to get involved. “Say ‘yes’ to serving on committees,” she said. “The mentorship and the network of professionals you build will be invaluable.”
Build it so they can come
Meiners also spearheaded a pre-dental mentorship program at her local HDA chapter. It began with outreach to elementary and high school students through presentations that reinforce the need for more underrepresented minorities within the dental professions.
“We go to schools in underserved areas and also target Head Start programs to raise awareness about pursuing a career in science — hopefully in dentistry,” said Meiners. “We talk about aspects of the job for all levels of the profession.”
Her message to current dental students and recent graduates is simple: “Don’t hesitate to be the first one to do something. If there isn’t a program, start one. If you see a need, meet the need,” she said. “Be the one others can see so that they know they can pursue their dreams.”
Other praise and accolades
Christina Meiners is quick to praise where praise is due. Among her most influential mentors are UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry professors Juanita Lozano-Pineda, DDS, MPH, and Vidal Balderas, DDS, MPH — both faculty within the school’s Department of Comprehensive Dentistry. “They were incredibly helpful and a true inspiration to me while I was pursing my degree, and they both did so much to encourage me to get involved professionally afterward,” said Meiners.
That encouragement did not go unheeded. In addition to her volunteer leadership roles with the Hispanic Dental Association and the San Antonio District Dental Society, Meiners served as president of the Greater San Antonio Hispanic Dental Association in 2013 and the San Antonio Academy of General Dentistry in 2016.
Meiners also is an alumna of the American Dental Association’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership program and was one of the first recipients of its “10 under 10” award recognizing young leaders with fewer than 10 years of professional experience.