Twelve-year-old Joan Ann Otomo needed to make a decision. When her auto-mechanic father, John,asked her to think about her future profession (“You can’t race cars for the rest of your life,” he told her), Joan wondered what she would be when she grew up. “My heart was broken,” she says today. After all, she’d been winning auto races in Selma, Calif., since she was five years old, and her victories were often featured in the hometown newspaper. “I raced until I was almost 16, and life revolved around racing for my entire family.”

As the eldest of three siblings, Joan also wanted to give her younger brothers Don and Tom the opportunity to
race. So in the spring of 1964, while Don and Tom took to the race track (and when she wasn’t waving pom-poms on the Roosevelt Junior High cheerleading squad), Joan spent hours in the bushes of a friend’s yard, watching the every move of an owl perched in a palm tree nearby. She’d decided to study the diets of barn owls for the eighth grade science fair.

“So, this is bizarre,” she begins with a chuckle. “I studied the lifestyle of barn owls by what they ate. The owl captures a rodent, ingests it, and regurgitates the rodent’s hair and other non-digestibles in the form of a pellet. I dissected the pellets.” With her mother Elaine’s help, she boiled the pellets in a solution of
water and bleach, picked them apart with toothpicks, and arranged the mandibles she found along a flat blackboard. “I did this for more than 1,200 owl pellets,” she says of the project, which not only won the local and state science fairs, but sent young Joan to 1964’s International Science Fair in San Francisco as the United States’ representative. “After dissecting the pellets, I held all these little teeth and jaws [from other animals] in my hands. After my dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told him that I wanted to be a dentist.”

Joan Otomo-Corgel, DDS, MPH, the newly installed president of the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP), has had a life as storied as her 37-year career as a periodontal clinician and educator. “Life’s never boring,” says the married mother of two. Today, she lives in the sunny coastal city of Manhattan Beach, California, located 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles, where she has a private practice with Dr. William Matoska. Southern California is known for its inexplicable midday traffic jams, but Dr. Otomo-Corgel gives new meaning to the term ‘rush hour.’ “I have a pilot’slicense. And do you want to know why I flew? Because if I wanted to go skiing in Taos, New Mexico, I could fly myself there, ski for a day, and fly myself back,” says the one-time snow ski instructor. “If I wanted to go home to see my family, I could get there in an hour and a half by plane with a mile-long run to the house in my sneakers. The freedom of being up in the air is second to none.”

Indeed, Dr. Otomo-Corgel has shown herself as a woman not bound by constraints of any kind. When she won the state science fair at age 12, she was denied the prize of a college scholarship because she was younger than many of the high school students presenting their projects that year. Upon her 1968 enrollment at California State University, Fresno, she’d secured scholarship dollars for her undergraduate studies in zoology. When it came to choosing a major, the former owl-watching science fair wunderkind didn’t veer far from her adolescent interests. “I needed a major that would transfer to dentistry, and in zoology, we got to study human physiology. Plus, I figured we’re all animals,” she says.

The fourth-generation Japanese American was part of the country’s largest group of women dental graduates in 1976, one of 11 female degree recipients in the UCLA dental school’s class of 107. “I remember they got all the women together to tell us that it was going to be a hard road, but I never felt any discrimination for being female or Asian,” she shares. She had a similar experience when she began the specialized study of periodontology, a field with an even scantier populace of women, not to mention women of color. “When I joined the AAP in 1977, I was the 37th female member ever [in the organization’s 63 years]. I was the only Asian woman. There were no other Asian women for a few years and no other Japanese women for quite a while.” Dr. Otomo-Corgel says she saw possibilities where others may have seen challenge. “As a periodontist and a woman and an Asian, I had a niche no one else had. It was door-opening for me.”

By 1980, Dr. Otomo-Corgel had become a fixture on the UCLA campus, completing a master’s degree in public health and teaching full-time in its department of periodontics, where she is still an associate clinical professor. She didn’t launch her extant private practice until 1981, two years after finishing her postdoctoral periodontics residency at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. Her days as a young periodontal lecturer cultivated Dr. Otomo-Corgel’s affinity for education. She insists, however, that she is “learning just as much as the residents are. [Teaching] rewards you with so many intangibles, plus it keeps your brain active.” She leads suturing and implant surgery seminars and classes on such topics as treatment planning. “Sometimes I’ll present students with a case and ask them to write down 10 treatment planning options in 30 minutes. Then a resident will come up with an out-of-the-box solution. Their ideas are refreshing.” Dr. Otomo-Corgel believes that creativity should extend beyond the classroom. As she takes the helm of the AAP for its 101st year, she expresses the leadership values of innovation, shared learning, and teamwork.

Dr. Otomo-Corgel has served on a number of AAP committees and as a member of such organizations as the Academy of Osseointegration and the Japanese American Dental Society. She is a past president of the California Society of Periodontists and the Western Society of Periodontology.

“My overall philosophy in life is to give back. A lot of the perio organizations I’ve worked with have one-on-one
mentorship programs. For someone who wants to go out and mentor, it’s not hard to do. The AAP is a great resource for connecting people as well,” she says, also highlighting the value of periodontists working with general dentists. “We can teach the general dentists what we know about soft tissues and regeneration, for example. We also have insight to the medical risks because we deal with them every single day—we’re a very distinct part of a team.”

Central to Dr. Otomo-Corgel’s presidential charge to membership are positive patient outcomes. “This year, I want everyone to pretend they are the patients in the chairs. Let’s help the public understand that we have the best clinicians and hygiene teams to treat their [periodontal] problems. They have to reduce their systemic risks because it’s a direct health issue. As an organization, we have to make each other better for the sake of our patients.”

Ask Dr. Otomo-Corgel what she does in her free time, and she’ll mention her latest foray in jet-setting. Her husband Rich, an executive for the professional services firm Ernst and Young, splits his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles, and Joan often joins him, opting to be a passenger instead. “I would have needed to fly at least twice a week to keep up with federal regulations. I didn’t have the time once I had children.”

But now most of my free time is devoted to working for the AAP – especially now that the kids are out of the house,” she says of son John “Bucky,” 27, who serves in the U.S. Navy stationed in Yokusaka, Japan, and daughter Stefanie, a 24-year-old sports fitness model who plays basketball in Italy.

There are many days when Dr. Otomo-Corgel’s worlds seem to converge at once. “Like earlier this week, when I flew in at 10 from seeing Rich in Japan, was at the hospital by 11, and took my AAP president’s call at 12.” Lately, her days have been busy but certainly not boring. And as she ushers in a season of spirited new beginnings at the Academy, she’s dusting off an old skill. “I was a rah-rah when I was growing up. But now I’d like to think of myself as the cheerleader for the AAP.”

Published in the October-December 2014 issue of AAP Periospectives.