The Interview: Blair Thomas | University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Respected oral maxillofacial surgeon and volleyball champion Dr. Blair Thomas didn’t choose dentistry as her profession until the last few months of her bachelor’s program. But perhaps her penchant for pulling her siblings’ baby teeth should have foreshadowed her eventual career. 

The two time UNLV alumna (’03 BS Kinesiology and ’08 DMD) returned to Las Vegas and the UNLV School of Dental Medicine after a four-year residency in oral maxillofacial surgery at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and eight years in Oklahoma City,  where she worked at the VA hospital and as a faculty member at Oklahoma University. 

Who inspired you to pursue your profession?

My mother was the most influential person in guiding me during that career decision-making process. She set the expectations bar high for education when my siblings and I were kids. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, she and I discussed my career choices, which ultimately led to dentistry.

Once I came to dental school, my first mentor, Dr. Raymond Simmons, advised me to go into oral maxillofacial surgery. I think it’s important because in oral surgery and within medicine in general, black women are underrepresented.

During residency, my program chairperson, Dr. Charles Williams, was instrumental in making me the surgeon I am today. He taught me the principles of surgery and anesthesia and always told me “be a two-handed surgeon” — meaning I needed to be proficient at using both hands (I’m a righty).

And while he had high expectations, he was also supportive of me and my personal life. My first child was born during my residency, which is something that could have delayed and even prevented me from completing the program. His support as program chair coupled with my amazing husband enabled me to focus on my career and successfully complete my residency.

Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?

Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. I never thought about becoming a dentist. Looking back at those early years, however, whenever my younger sister and brother had loose baby teeth, they would only let me take them out. My parents would offer, but my siblings would ask for me to do it. So, I guess it was meant to be.

I didn’t consider dentistry as a possible profession until I was finishing my undergraduate degree. A classmate suggested that I consider dentistry, but even after shadowing a local dentist, I was uncertain. I still wanted to pursue medicine and I also had offers to continue playing volleyball. I was torn. My mom encouraged me to study for the DAT (Dental Admission Test) and apply. After taking my first oral surgery class, I knew that I wanted to specialize and become an oral surgeon.

What is the biggest misconception about your field?

The biggest misconception within my specialty, especially since the name is often truncated to “oral surgery,” is that we only remove teeth. There are so many aspects to what we actually treat within the head and neck. For example, we help prepare the mouth for dental implants and dentures; we handle pathology and reconstruction of jaws among cancer patients; we help rebuild jaws among trauma patients, like those who have been in disfiguring auto accidents; we repair cleft palates; and we perform cosmetic procedures.

You earned two degrees at UNLV. What was your greatest day on campus?

My greatest day was Match Day, when I learned which residency program had accepted me. The process of finding a residency program is stressful. You don’t know if you will match, so you’re constantly thinking, “Is anyone going to want me in their program?”

And your toughest?

The first day I transferred to UNLV during my undergraduate program. I was leaving my volleyball teammates, my friends, and going into a new program where I would have to compete for a position. It ended up being the right decision.

Best tip or advice for someone new to UNLV?

From a faculty perspective, especially if you are new to academia, my advice is to have patience.

What problem in the world would you most like to fix? 

I would fix inequality and socio-economic imbalances. I believe everyone deserves equal treatment and access to the same opportunities. We should all be on the same, level playing field.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be more appreciative of who I am at that moment and less critical. I am competitive in many aspects of my life, but back then I would often ignore the positive and focus on the negative. I would find the things that weren’t good enough. 

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

I am an NCAA Division I women’s volleyball champion, and my team at Long Beach State was the first Division I women’s volleyball team to have an undefeated season.

What’s your biggest pet peeve (at work or in life)?

My biggest pet peeve at the office is a messy surgical tray. I cannot stand having instruments laying all over the place.

In general, my biggest pet peeve is people who take themselves too seriously and consider themselves better than those around them.

Give us a gear recommendation — an everyday product that helps you do your job.

For surgery, when I am removing teeth, I have to have a Cogswell Elevator. It’s my absolute favorite instrument — not having one makes me feel lost.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

When I had a hard day during dental school, my guilty pleasure was an order of McDonald’s fries and a vanilla milkshake. I used to say their fries could cure anything. Now, my guilty pleasure is a Starbucks Frappuccino.

If space tourism advances to the point where a trip to Mars and back were possible, would you go if the shortest round-trip ticket was three years?

Yes, but only if my family could go, too.

Favorite holiday food or unique tradition for your family.

My family’s favorite tradition is Friday night movie night. The kids get to pick the movie and their favorite snacks. It’s our way to ensure we spend time together as a family.

Describe your ideal summer vacation.

A nice beach. Blended margaritas. And as many days as possible to be on vacation.

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