Originally from the Mississippi Delta, Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon made her way to Nashville to attend the prestigious Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. Her initial plans to return home after college and go into private practice took a sharp turn when she was offered an instructor position at Meharry, and the mother of two and Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve carved an impressive professional path for herself, quickly moving up the academic ranks. These days, she’s supporting students and furthering their education as both a professor and Meharry’s Dean, School of Dentistry. She’s also largely responsible for the school’s incredible COVID assessment center efforts. Please welcome this week’s FACE of Nashville, Dr. Cherae Farmer-Dixon.
What does an average workday look like for you?
I’m primarily in administration, but I helped teach the clinics pre-COVID. During COVID, I was overseeing the COVID assessment sites and doing all of the things that come with being the dean. Starting in the fall, I’m actually going back to where I got my start, which was teaching in the classroom versus the clinics. I’ll be helping out in one of the dental classes. One of the biggest drawbacks of being dean is that I don’t get to know the students like I used to; the dean’s position pulls me away from that. Going into the classroom allows me to work with them at the grassroots level when they’re first starting.
What is your favorite part of teaching, and what’s the most important lesson that teaching has taught you?
Each set of students brings different dynamics and experiences. I’m amazed at some of the things that I’ve learned from them, and the ideas that I’ve gotten from them. The older I get, the more disconnected I am from current generational trends. The students keep me young.
Tell us about your experience with the COVID assessment centers.
We started in March of 2020. Patrick Johnson, the Senior Vice President for the Institution of Advancement, told the senior leadership, “The city’s getting ready to do COVID testing, and we’ll be making certain that we have a footprint in our community where people can come.” Then, he looked at me and said, “Now I need you to come up with the logistics. You’ve done Oral Health Day, and you’ve been able to work out treating 400 patients in a day, so I know you know how to make that work.” We actually thought we were only going to be doing it for a couple of weeks.
I’ve always believed that we need to meet the people where they are. What about those people who can’t come to the sites during the week? What about those who are still scared and uncertain? We’re founded on the foundation of The United Methodist Church, so we used our church partnerships, and every Saturday, we were at a different church. It was a lot of fun, and the students were amazing. I never had to send out anything to bribe people to come. Sometimes I would even have to say, “I don’t need everyone this time, because you’re all going to get burned out.” But they never did. They were there every Saturday, rain or shine.
What is something about the field of dentistry or how we take care of our teeth that you wish more of us knew or understood?
Unfortunately, there’s a misconception — especially in underserved communities— that losing teeth is a natural transition. That doesn’t have to be. Getting routine checkups is important, and it’s about helping people understand that what you put in your mouth impacts your teeth and oral health. It’s not just about eating a lot of sweets and getting cavities. It can also turn into obesity or diabetes, which impacts gum disease and heart disease. There are even studies showing an association between gum disease and Alzheimer’s. It’s about people understanding that something as simple as getting your teeth cleaned on a regular basis can help keep you healthy, and a healthy mouth leads to keeping a healthy body.
You serve as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve been doing it for 18 years. Once a year, I do my annual training, and I’m always doing something dental-related. I may go to a place where people are being processed to go overseas to Iraq or Kuwait, and I get them ready so they don’t have any dental problems while they’re gone. If they have cavities, I try to get those fixed before they go, because if they’re out in the field, they’re putting themselves and others in harm’s way to have to be transported to a dentist.
What do you view as your biggest success to date?
My children. My daughter finished her master’s and started a Ph.D. program, and my son is in a master’s program now. There’s no recipe or guide for raising kids; you just pray that you do a good job and raise kids who are respectful and have good values and ethics. My kids are genuinely good kids, and seeing them now makes me proud. On a professional level, it’s serving as dean of the school where I got my start. Even joining the faculty was supposed to be a temporary thing, so having the opportunity to give back to the institution that has given so much to me is very rewarding.
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What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Be true to yourself and never minimize your word or your values.” As I’ve gotten older, I really understand that I’m not compromising what I believe in. I don’t minimize the value of my words or the value of other people’s words. I don’t profess to know everything, and in this position, I have a team of people that I call my trusted advisors. When I’m doing something they don’t think I should do, I want them to be brutally honest. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear! What I want to hear is your honest opinion. Sometimes we’ll agree to disagree, but it gives me a different perspective. So, I try to have a platform where they can always feel comfortable disagreeing with me. Then, we’re able to engage in dialogue and come to a common consensus.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
I can’t live without sweets! I have a sweet tooth (says the dentist). That’s my true weakness, and it always has been. Traveling — it has been difficult not to be able to travel. And I’m a “Law and Order SVU” fanatic. It’s been on for over 20 years. Eventually, it’s going to end, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Thank you, Dr. Farmer-Dixon.