Denise Alexander UCSF School of Dentistry

She credits her upbringing in a dangerous South Central Los Angeles neighborhood with giving her the grit, resilience, and commanding presence to care for toughened prisoners. And she credits UCSF with giving her the foundational skills and exceptional professional judgment to do her best work, no matter what the circumstances.

I understand how oral health relates to overall health, so counseling in this area is a big part of my job.


“I am well equipped to handle daily surgical extractions, lip and facial lacerations, and evaluations of facial dislocations and fractures,” she says. “I also understand how oral health relates to overall health, so counseling in this area is a big part of my job. My UCSF education is what gave me that judgment ability.”

Dentist makes an impression 

Her dream to become a dentist began at about age 15, when she needed to have her wisdom teeth extracted. “I could see that the dentist was the boss,” she says. “He had people working for him who did what he told them to do. I thought, This is what I’m going to do.”

Reaching her dream was no easy task. She had a low GPA and frequently missed school to help her mother with a home day care business. Her high school counselor encouraged her to choose a less ambitious vocation, but Alexander was determined.

Moving up

With the help of a recruiting team from the Educational Opportunity Program in Los Angeles, she became the first person in her family to attend college. She followed a winding route from Nairobi College in East Palo Alto (where she earned a scholarship), to San Francisco State, then UC Berkeley, and finally UCSF.

She recalls her early months at USCF as exciting but also difficult. “I’d call my mom, who had encouraged me to go to college,” she says. That was all the reassurance she needed to forge ahead.

Only dentistry 

After graduation, Alexander began a private dental practice in Berkeley that ultimately lasted 25 years. She decided to retire to Florida but found herself drawn back to her profession when she learned of the state’s dentist shortage.

As she was about to return to work, she wondered whether she still had a passion for dentistry.

“I realized that it was running a business that had made me want to retire,” she says. “I love dentistry itself.”

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