Through her own experiences, Mirdza Neiders, PMCert '74 knew the importance of women receiving a college education. Now, she's giving back to elevate women in academics even further.
When Mirdza Neiders, PMCert ’74 came to the United States at age 17, she could not speak English. Her family had fled Latvia after World War II and spent six years in a camp in Germany awaiting passage to the U.S.
Her father was a physician, and her mother was a dentist, and she aspired to be a dentist. A life of hard work in the classroom, learning English and excelling in math and the sciences ultimately brought Mirdza to the UB School of Dental Medicine, where she taught for 58 years.
At the start of her dental career, there were very few women in the profession. She was the only female in her University of Michigan dental school class and there were no women in the UB dental school class of 1962 when she started. But Neiders has played a significant role in transforming the gender balance as a teacher and mentor.
“I walked into (UB) in 1962 where the graduating class had zero women. In 1972, we had about 5%, and in 1982 it was 15%,” she said. “And just look at it now. In 2022, it’s 56%.” -Mirdza Neiders
To help women continue to rise in the ranks of dental academia, Neiders recently created a fund to help female professors in the two departments where she taught and did research—oral diagnostic sciences and periodontology—attain more training.
“My goal is to evolve women as role models not only for women but also for men,” said Neiders, who retired as a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. “In academics you have to be up to date. You have to keep improving yourself.”
Three UB faculty are current recipients of grants from the Neiders fund: Nicole Hinchy, DDS ’12, Isolde Rojas-Rudolph and Lisa Yerke, MS ’16, DDS ’06. They have also benefitted from her dedicated mentorship.
“She has had a pretty profound influence,” said Hinchy, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Oral Diagnostic Sciences and director of radiology at the dental school. “It’s nice to have someone like that in your corner.
“When I was a senior in dental school, she pulled me aside and gave me an article about women in medicine and how we have to get a stronger voice out there,” Hinchy said. “She is definitely more apt to push the female students.”
For Rojas-Rudolph, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Periodontics and Endodontics, being an immigrant from Chile gave her a common bond with Neiders.
“She understands the importance of getting credentials here,” she said. “She is inspiring and also strongly influenced me. She helped me believe in myself. For some period I think she believed in me more than I did. That really is a mentor. That really is a teacher.”
Yerke, clinical associate professor and director of advanced education programs in periodontics, remembers how Neiders helped her as a dental student.
“Every time I saw her in clinic, she was always, always learning something. If she wasn’t talking to a student, she would always have a book,” she recalled. “One time she was learning Spanish just for the sake of learning Spanish. I loved it. I loved the fact that she was always learning something and her brain was always busy,” she said.
The first Neiders grant recipients feel a responsibility to carry on the mission behind the fund, assisting women dental professionals climb the academic ladder.
“I’ll never be able to thank Mitzi enough for what she’s given me, but I definitely want to pay it forward,” Yerke said. “And I know the others feel that way too. There’s no way we can do for her what she’s done for us, but it’s all about passing it on.”
Yerke said Neiders summed up the passion behind that desire when she told her of her plans to help the effort. “I told Mitzi I was planning to pay it forward, and she said ’Good. That’s the way it’s meant to be.’”
Story by Grove Potter
Published August 3, 2022