Avelino Silva, DDS ’79 : A love of science, a strong work ethic, and a desire to help others
After more than three decades as a UCSF School of Dentistry faculty member, Avelino Silva, DDS ’79, retired in 2016. But retirement didn’t last long.
After six months, he went back to work teaching a few days a week in the dental hygiene program at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., reviewing applicants for the UCSF School of Dentistry’s admissions committee, and mentoring students who hope to attend dental school.
“If you don’t have a mentor, you might not know how to get into a dental program,” Dr. Silva says. “I help individuals from diverse backgrounds who reflect the kind of life I had growing up, so I feel a connection. I’m happy to help others achieve what I have achieved in terms of success.”
Dr. Silva grew up in Southern California’s Ventura County with farmworker parents who emigrated to the US from Mexico during the 1920s. He has memories of riding a bus with his mother at dawn, when he was very young, to pick dew-covered fruit in local orchards.
His parents’ strong work ethic and their determination to take care of him and his brother provided motivation. “I wanted to escape to a different life,” he says. “I knew I had to do it myself. And I knew I could do it through education.”
His father, who collected science textbooks that he kept on shelves in a little shack in the family’s yard, was one of Dr. Silva’s early science influences. “He only had a seventh-grade education, and I don’t know why he connected with science or why he collected those books, but this sparked my own interest in science,” he says. “I’d pull them out and start to read.”
Another influence was his high school science teacher, who saw Dr. Silva’s potential and introduced him to the scientific method. “His belief in me catapulted me to success in high school, and I became the first in my family to graduate from high school, then graduate from college, then go to a health professional school.”
As he thought about his future, he knew that he loved science, enjoyed making things with his hands, and liked interacting with people. Dentistry seemed like an appropriate path. He went on to study biological sciences at UC Santa Barbara, then was accepted at the UCSF School of Dentistry.
Dr. Silva says the culture at UCSF in 1979 was different from today, with just 12 women in his class and little diversity. “Plus, we were taught primarily by ex-military dentists,” he says. “They were disciplinarians – we didn’t mess around with them. I worked hard and did very well.”
He notes how much his accomplishments meant to his family. “My parents were thrilled. When I had the opportunity to invite them my to graduation from UCSF, it was a wonderful, emotional day,” he says.
After graduation, he spent a year in private practice but ended up back at UCSF. One of his mentors, longtime UCSF Dentistry faculty member Phoenix Sinclair, DDS ’76, hired him as a faculty member at the Buchanan General Dentistry Student Clinic.
“I never envisioned working at a prestigious university like UCSF,” Dr. Silva says. “But the hand of fate reached out through Dr. Sinclair and pulled me into the university, and I stayed.”
After several years as a staff dentist, he was promoted to predoctoral clinic director, a position he held for decades, teaching hundreds of dental students.
“I’ve always loved sharing my skills, knowledge, and experience,” Dr. Silva says. “I was always grateful for every opportunity I was given. That’s why I give back.”
Avelino Silva won a 2020 UCSF Campaign Alumni Award in “The Dedicated” category. The award honors those who have devoted their careers to inspiring the next generation of scientists and health care providers.