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Two Early Graduates to Pursue Service Through Dental School

Katherine Stohlman

Abigal Hacker at microscope

Abigail Hacker and Jalen Jefferson, both of whom double-majored in biology and biochemistry as Honors students, fast-tracked their undergraduate programs to prepare for dental school.

Inspired by their hopes of bringing healthcare to underserved communities, two Mount St. Mary’s University students decided to graduate early to prepare for the pursuit of careers as dentists.

Abigail Hacker and Jalen Jefferson both started at the Mount in the fall of 2018. Both double-majored in biology and biochemistry as Honors students, and both completed their degrees in December 2021, opting to fast-track their undergraduate programs to prepare for dental school. Touchingly, both also chose to study dentistry because of formative personal experiences that led to a desire to serve.

jefferson-jalen-500-250-2-in-text.pngAs a prospective student, Jalen Jefferson was drawn to the interactive environment encouraged by the Mount's smaller class sizes. Already knowing that he wanted to become a dentist, he eventually decided to graduate a semester early so that he could have a break between his undergraduate education and dental school. Fast-tracking his degree programs was, as Jefferson put it, “easier than expected,” thanks to the summer courses available at the Mount.

That doesn’t mean that graduating early was free of difficulties, however. Jefferson, along with his twin brother Malik Jefferson, C’22, played on the men’s basketball team his entire college career—except his final semester. Completing two science majors in three and a half years as an Honors Program student left little time for extracurricular activities. “It was hard to leave for my last semester,” Jefferson reflected. “But I was glad that we finished the last season with a championship, and I still got to hang around practices.”

Three years of camaraderie meant that he was still a member of the team in spirit. Malik even paid tribute to Jalen by jalen-jefferson-in-action.jpgwearing his jersey number, 34, for a game early in the season. As for attending the same school and playing on the same team as his brother? “This is something I've been used to since elementary school,” he noted. It felt the same as any other year in school, and has helped maintain a connection to the basketball team even after Jalen left to focus on classes.

His decision to be a dentist was as community- and justice-based as Hacker’s. As a middle and high schooler exploring career paths, he was intrigued by dentistry because of the close contacts dentists have with their community and the service they provide. He hesitated, however, “because I didn’t really see anyone in the profession that looked like me, whether in media depictions or in my own personal experience.”

Jefferson eventually conquered his doubts but notes that this was probably the biggest obstacle he faced in choosing a career. He hopes that by becoming a dentist, he can improve access to oral healthcare for people who most need it, and to establish greater representation for Black people in the field. “I hope that if I succeed in my efforts, it will teach others not to doubt their chances on the basis of race or background,” he said.

Jefferson will attend the School of Dentistry at Columbia University next fall, finishing in 2026.

hacker-abigail-500-250-2.pngThe Mount’s warm, close-knit community drew Hacker to the university from the start. She recalls getting a private tour of the School of Natural Science and Mathematics on her first visit to the Mount, interacting with current students and even learning about the research of some of the professors. She stayed overnight for her second visit, and the students confirmed what she’d already hoped: the genuine care faculty show to the people in their classes.

Once enrolled at the Mount, Hacker dove right in, choosing to double-major and joining the Honors Program. Her involvement in campus activities inspired her to consider dentistry as a career path. She recalls a trip with the Office of Social Justice to Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen in Baltimore. While volunteering, she encountered words of gratitude and warm smiles of appreciation. Yet those very smiles also revealed the lack of equal access to basic health care that the impoverished face. “Seeing this, I could only think about how…one day of service could never…counter the gravity of their sufferings and needs. From then on, I knew I wanted to pursue a career committing myself to others,” she remembered.

After debating between medical school and dental school, she landed on dental school, thinking of her lifelong relationship with her own dentist and the direct interactions dentists have with their patients. Upon discovering this calling, Hacker buckled down, working to fit two science degrees into three and a half years of study. While this was challenging, she credits the AP classes she took in high school and the Mount’s extensive summer course offerings with helping her manage this feat. In the summer of 2019, she conducted research under the Student Research Internship Award program in the lab of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Patrick Lombardi, Ph.D. Her research was designed to understand ASCC2 DNA repair complex in order to “gain insight [into] alkylation-induced damage repair” and potentially provide ways to mitigate the effects of cancer and chemotherapy, “she explained at the time.

Now a Mount graduate, Hacker is using her time to continue preparing for dental school. She is enrolled in the School of Dentistry at the University of Louisville and will join as a member of the Class of 2026.

Katherine Stohlman