This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Before his arrival at Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) in 2017, you might have found William “Brennan” Arden, D.M.Sc. ’21, jumping out of helicopters, practicing dentistry on a tanker-sized hospital ship, or visiting the farthest corners of the globe to deliver humanitarian aid. As a dentist with the U.S. Navy, Arden treated service members and organized humanitarian efforts in countries like Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. At HSDM, he pursued an advanced degree in endodontics and served as chief resident of the endodontics program. After he graduates this month, he will return to military service — where he finds great opportunity and purpose.
“The Navy gives you a perspective you really don’t see in any other situation; you are free to choose treatments based on what is deemed best by your professional judgment, and to provide that to all of your patients independent of a financial driving force,” Arden said. “Some of the dentistry would be considered ‘old school,’ such as the use of amalgam in buildups and posterior restorations or using a rubber dam for every restorative procedure. But you learn to practice based on what actually works and is best for the patient, not just what they can afford.”
In addition to shaping how Arden approaches care, the Navy has given him rewarding, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Most meaningful to Arden has been the opportunity to provide care to populations in need.
“Practicing dentistry in some of the most outstanding locations around the world has been incredibly rewarding! I love not only seeing the work that I do for the people who serve our country, but also all the good done by various global humanitarian efforts,” he said.
Arden has always valued the importance of global oral health, as well as working to improve outcomes in underserved populations. He has prioritized education and professional development for providers in those communities. At HSDM, he helped initiate and plan the first dental summit in Vietnam and taught dental students in Rwanda while implementing a new endodontic curriculum. He views this work as critical to answering some of the world’s most pressing health questions.
“Not looking outside of your immediate environment is like reading only one page of a book,” he said. “There is a global story, and to compartmentalize ourselves and think we are in our own little worlds and what we do does not affect others is a great fallacy. We are health care practitioners, our knowledge is not patented, and it should be shared for the benefit of the whole globe.”
Some of Arden’s most meaningful humanitarian work took place in Arawa, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, after the island was freed from a 20-year government barricade as a result of a civil war.
“The 300,000 residents had lived those 20 years in complete isolation and self-subsistence with only one physician and a handful of nurses to care for this population without the convenience of equipment, supplies, or medicine,” he said. “Our team brought a hospital ship with 11 operating rooms, a dental clinic, a pharmacy, an optician, and more than 1,100 healthcare workers to the island for two weeks and provided humanitarian care for these amazingly humble yet grateful people. I am proud to say that I was the lead planner for this mission, and learned so much working with and helping such great people.”
After graduation, Arden will head to San Antonio and return to work with the Navy as a dental researcher. The next phase of his career will include supervising civilian researchers, conducting research of his own, and working with the endodontics residency program.
“There will always be work to do in health care, and it’s in my nature to just keep working at it,” Arden said. “We tell ourselves we will rest when the job is done, but it will never be done. Knowing that what you do is so important and makes an immediate impact on someone’s life makes it rewarding,.
“I get excited every time I move to a new location and start a new life chapter. This one will be particularly interesting compared to other moves because now I am married and we’re expecting a baby. I am also excited to get back to the military environment that I enjoy so much,” he added.