Joan and Naomi: In Conversation

Joan Otomo-Corgel on the left, Naomi Ellison on the right
Dr. Joan Otomo-Corgel (left) and Dr. Naomi Ellison discuss how the seeds of service were planted in them from a young age and share advice for new alums looking to get involved beyond patient care.
May 15, 2023

***This interview appears in the UCLA School of Dentistry's Spring 2023 Magazine***

The current and past chairs of the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Board of Counselors – Joan Otomo-Corgel, D.D.S. ’76, M.P.H. ’80, and Naomi Ellison, D.D.S. ’81 – discuss how the seeds of service were planted in them from a young age and share advice for new alums looking to get involved beyond patient care.

School of Dentistry: Did either of you observe any examples of leadership, mentoring, giving, or serving others growing up, and if so, how did those influence you?

Dr. Joan Otomo-Corgel: My childhood sport was auto racing. When I asked my dad why he let me drive at 5 years of age, he said, “Because you are special.” My parents, who were my devoted mentors, empowered me – don’t see barriers, see opportunities and always think of others before yourself. Being a collegiate cheer “leader” helped me earn scholarships from the National Cheerleaders Association that paid for tuition at the UCLA School of Dentistry. Throughout my life, the philosophy was when you get, don’t forget to give.

Dr. Naomi Ellison: I went to a one-room country schoolhouse until I was in the eighth grade and service started early in my life because, in order to survive, you had to help your neighbor. My parents taught me that you always help when you can. I started out in 4-H; you had to put your little book together and say what you'd done for someone else. I began looking for areas where one could be of service. Oh, and I was a cheerleader too, Joan!

Later, when I had the opportunity to give some money to UCLA, I went, “Wait a minute, why can't my school have some of this? After all, it’s given me my career!” And that moment of giving landed me on the School of Dentistry Board of Counselors.

SOD: Looking at the long lists of leadership roles, boards, chairing of committees etc., on each of your resumes, it seems that you said “yes” to many opportunities and requests for your time. What drives you to say, “let’s do this”?

JOC: Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” You look at where you can make the biggest impact, where you can make a positive difference, or where you can be the best mentor for others. A person needs to find what gives them energy, inspiration, and passion in order to improve their community.

NE: You learn, and then you can serve as an example for others. I think that's a huge thing. When I first got involved with organized dentistry, there were no women. Joan, it was probably similar for you; there were no other women on any of the boards I sat on, but I had such a wonderful, respectful time with these men. And one of them in particular knew how to run a meeting. I watched that and learned so much from him. I still use those skills today!

JOC: I have learned a ton from Naomi Ellison about how to chair a meeting. I've learned patience from you, Naomi! In board service and beyond, you create really, really nice attachments with other people that you normally would never meet. And I think from there, it's almost like planting a seed. It grows.

SOD: Do you have any advice for the next generation of leaders, say, someone just graduating from the School of Dentistry, or a recent alum who may be reading this article?

NE: I would recommend they join their local dental society because there's nothing better than having other dentists to talk to. Don't isolate yourself. Meet other dentists, share things with them and, you know, dentists aren't just dentists. There are dentists that do a lot of different things. UCLA is always willing to have you come back and help with the students, too.

JOC: I agree with Naomi; for the new dental grad, local organizations are great. You can also get involved in your local community; look at your city council. You will be a better person. You'll have a better quality of life because you will look at the values of other people in a different way.

NE: Yes, and your patients love hearing about what you do outside of the office. It makes them proud. It really does. They like knowing that their dentist is involved and more than just their dentist!

Dr. Naomi Ellison (D.D.S. ’81) built a successful private practice while simultaneously holding several leadership positions within the dental field, including with the California Dental Association. Dr. Ellison served as chair of the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Board of Counselors from 1996 to 2022 and remains an active member of the Board. During more than 26 years of service, she has helped raise more than $55 million to support UCLA Dentistry’s mission. Dr. Ellison is also deeply involved in campus-wide philanthropic activities, including as a Centennial Campaign for UCLA cabinet member and past president of Women and Philanthropy at UCLA. Last October, Dr. Reuben Kim was installed as the inaugural Naomi and Jim Ellison Endowed Chair in the Section of Restorative Dentistry at UCLA.

Dr. Joan Otomo-Corgel (D.D.S. ’76, M.P.H. ’80) took the baton from Dr. Ellison as Board of Counselors chair in July 2022 after serving as vice-chair since 2020. A clinical professor in the School’s Section of Periodontics, Dr. Otomo-Corgel also also serves as a faculty member at the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care Center Dental Service where she is chair of postdoctoral research. She has maintained a thriving periodontics and implantology private practice for over four decades. A member of the ADA Council on Dental Education and Licensure and the CDA Board of Directors, Dr. Otomo- Corgel is the past president of the American Academy of Periodontology, among numerous other present and past appointments. She chaired the fundraising effort for the Dr. Ronald Mito Award for Professionalism, Leadership, and Service and co-chaired the fundraising effort for the Dr. Henry H. Takei Endowed Periodontal Symposium.