Crafting smiles: UNE dental student combines art and education to improve access to care

Macy Punzalan
Macy Punzalan (D.M.D.,’ 24) will attend an orthodontics residency in Boston to help people feel good about their smiles.

After working as a dental assistant, Macy Punzalan (D.M.D.,’ 24) decided to attend the University of New England to further her education in dental medicine. At UNE, she has been combining her past experience in medicine, love for art, and education to support individuals who have trouble accessing dental care. 

“I saw that there was a huge need for dental care,” said Punzalan, a fourth-year student in the College of Dental Medicine, reflecting on her time as a dental assistant in Williamsburg, Virginia, and her desire to pursue a dentistry degree. 

“I had gotten to know a lot of the patients and saw how far they traveled,” she said. “Some of them had held off being able to get dental work done just because it was so expensive.” 

Punzalan recognized that becoming a dentist would be difficult, but she was excited to take on that challenge to provide a greater level of care to patients. At UNE, Punzalan said she felt that same sense of calling to help people access dental care while working in UNE’s Oral Health Care Clinic, a teaching clinic that provides dental services for the community. 

“I had met a lot of patients at UNE’s clinic with health care coverage issues that prevented them from getting the health care and procedures they needed,” Punzalan explained, adding that the strong sense of community at UNE not only made her successful in the classroom but also helped her tackle dental access issues for Maine residents. 

Punzalan said that the jewelry business she started, called the Pristine Pearls Project Patient Fund, aims to alleviate the cost of dental care for individual patients who might otherwise be unable to afford care. The nonprofit got its wings in 2023, and Punzalan credits the UNE and Portland community for its success. 

“Portland has been such a welcoming community that honestly supports local artists and small businesses,” she said, adding that she’s been able to host booths at local markets, art walks, and dental events to raise funds for the project. “Through that, I’m able to fundraise (and provide) patients access that money for their care.” 

Punzalan said her love for dentistry stems from her appreciation for the artistic elements of crafting a perfect smile. 

“I chose dental medicine because I love that there’s art incorporated in taking care of patients,” she said, noting that, to her, a perfect smile is a smile her patient feels confident with. “Growing up, I’ve always been really into art and music. I’ve done painting and piano, and I just thought that dentistry was the perfect blend of everything that I loved.” 

Her particular interest lies in orthodontics, which she considers dentistry's highest form of art. 

“There’s a lot of factors that you have to take into consideration when you’re crafting a patient’s smile,” Punzalan said, adding that the complexity of a person’s mouth makes shaping a smile challenging, such as the number of teeth and the way they come together. “It makes it a fun puzzle to solve while also being artistic.” 

As she looks ahead to her future in orthodontics and her residency at Boston University, Punzalan hopes to continue making a difference in the lives of her patients through public health orthodontics and bridging the dental resource gap that rural U.S. experiences.   

“I want to come back to Maine and hopefully practice in that area and hopefully be able to see people who have trouble accessing care and help treat them,” she said.