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From Practical to Passionate

Illinois Daughter finds purpose in her work as a member of the U.S. Navy Dental Corps

When Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Katherine Meister Cheng joined the U.S. Navy 10 years ago, she was looking for a practical way to pay for the expense of dental school.

She received the Navy’s health professions scholarship, which paid her tuition in exchange for four years of active duty service in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps, which provides dental support for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps worldwide.  

But once her service began, LCDR Cheng, a member of North Shore DAR Chapter, Lake Forest, Ill., found much more than tuition assistance—she also found a rewarding profession.

“I hadn’t initially considered making it a career, but the lifestyle suits me,” she said. “I enjoyed the working environment and educational opportunities possible in the military. I also found I really enjoy dental education and developing junior officers both clinically and professionally.”

LCDR Cheng started her career as a dental resident at Naval Branch Health Clinic Great Lakes (now the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center), where she’s currently serving as the director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry resident training program. She was recently selected for promotion to commander, a title she will assume later next year. 

A typical day involves overseeing and assisting dental residents with treatment planning, diagnosing and performing dental treatments on patients at one of the FHCC’s dental clinics at Naval Station Great Lakes. 

“I get to work every day with new graduates from dental school who are just starting out their careers and know only the basics of dentistry,” she said. “I have the privilege of developing them into naval officers who practice dentistry at a level elevated from their peers. I have former residents stationed in the United States and Japan, and I smile each time I see them thriving in their current roles.”

LCDR Cheng has also served abroad. She was stationed as a dental officer onboard the USS Whidbey Island, an amphibious warship that deployed to the Mediterranean Sea during the political unrest in Libya in 2011.

After completing specialty training at the Naval Postgraduate Dental School in Bethesda, Md., LCDR Cheng became board-certified in general dentistry—an achievement only 1 percent of general dentists can claim. Afterward, she and her husband, Jerry, were assigned to the Marine Corps’ 3rd Dental Battalion in Okinawa, Japan, where they served for three years.

They took the opportunity to travel around the region, visiting mainland Japan, Thailand, Singapore, China, Guam and South Korea. Living abroad resulted in a strengthened spirit of patriotism.

“Living overseas allowed me to appreciate being an American in a new way, and it increased my interest in our country’s history and what it means to be a Patriot,” LCDR Cheng said. 

These days, she has traded the demands of deployment with those of parenting two young children—Julia, age 4, and Henry, age 1. She manages to start most days with a 4:30 a.m. workout.

“This habit does not necessarily come easily to me,” LCDR Cheng admitted, “but I have found in this season of life that the early morning is the only time to fit it in. Since the job requires that I maintain a certain standard of physical fitness, this is when it gets done.”

Her workday typically ends at 3:30 p.m., allowing her time to eat dinner and spend quality time with her husband and children. “Time is one of our most precious resources,” she said. “Being intentional about spending time with my family allows me to put everything into perspective, appreciate life’s many blessings, and gives me strength to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.” 

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