An advocate at every level

Colton Cannon, DDS/MPH Class of 2023

Colton Cannon, DDS/MPH ’23, has always had a passion for oral health advocacy. It’s why he’s pursuing a dual degree in dentistry and public health: so he can explore ways to make oral healthcare available for everyone.

“I'm working to become the most well-rounded oral health care provider I can,” he explained. Recently, that’s meant two big undertakings: an election, and a new organization.

On February 21, Cannon found out that he’d been elected the American Student Dental Association National president. “It’s truly an incredible honor to serve on behalf of the association’s 23,000 members over the course of this next year,” he said after the announcement. “I look forward to advocating and representing dental students on the issues that matter most.”

Cannon hopes he can have a substantial impact on licensure reform, eliminating barriers to care, and reinforcing a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s confident in his ability to impact change in these areas, thanks to an organization he founded in a virtual course this year.

The elective course, which Karin Quick, DDS, PhD, encouraged him to join, brought together students and faculty from five schools in an online format made possible by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting move to virtual teaching and learning. Instructors from Harvard, the University of North Carolina, Eastern Carolina University, and the University of Minnesota joined students from each of these schools and beyond to study dental public health.

“The course showed us how to take a policy or problem within dentistry, and go through the steps to take action: to identify something relevant and crucial, and do something about it,” Cannon explained. Guest speakers visited the course to share their take on contemporary policy and show what a career in dental public health might look like.

“There’s not necessarily one job that encompasses everything in dental public health,” Cannon explained. “So talking with these speakers, I learned how I can use my skills and follow different paths I didn’t even know existed. It was really motivating.”

Outcomes from the course spanned beyond ideas and conversation, too. Cannon was surprised to see that his friend Jakob Holtzman, a dental student from Colorado and a fellow member of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA) National Council on Advocacy, was also in the class. They both connected over their enjoyment of the course.

Cannon and Holtzman capitalized on that motivation and decided to keep their work going: so they created Slice of Pie. The budding group, named to represent small “slices” of policy idea exchanges, meets virtually each month to have a conversation around a key topic in dentistry.

The group invites students, residents, faculty, and policymakers together to share ideas and learn from one another. “Since it’s something no one’s required to do, we’re hopeful that we can bring in people who really want to be there and become one team.”

The first idea exchange, held in January, focused on the dental administration of vaccines. Two University of Minnesota instructors, Priscilla Flynn, DrPH, MPH, and Cyndee Stull, MDH, shared their expertise on the subject before attendees brainstormed methods of advocacy.

Their topic choice proved timely, as the Minnesota Senate passed Senate File 475 unanimously this February, allowing dentists to administer COVID-19 vaccines; a companion bill in the Minnesota House will come to debate at a later time.

Cannon and his colleagues plan to host exchanges once per month on salient topics. “If we can have a forum of exchanges and ideas and use that to create networks, dialogue and connections, then we can lead to changes in the field that make a real impact.”

“If we can have a forum of exchanges and ideas and use that to create networks, dialogue and connections, then we can lead to changes in the field that make a real impact.” - Colton Cannon

He’s excited to see his future come into a clearer view thanks to the work he’s doing. “Sometimes as a dental student, you learn all this information and aren’t sure what to do with it. I’m enjoying having a space to put that work into practice in a way that has real-world implications.”

Cannon isn’t sure what will come next, or what the future of Slice of Pie might be. But he’s excited to see what happens. “We realized we stumbled onto something powerful with this course: before COVID, many of these conversations may have happened in isolation,” he explained. “If we can bring our momentum forward and connect with others in the field, we might be able to collectively make some change.”

And he’s excited for his future as ASDA president, too. “The past year has given a lot of uncertainty to the dental student experience,” he said. “I believe ASDA is an association that can work to provide certainty in these times of uncertainty.”