The Way I See It: Dr. Katya Skillestad ’19

May 20th, 2020

Dr. Katya Skillestad won the prestigious Eugene L. Gottlieb JCO Student of the Year Award during ortho residency.

To say that orthodontics changed Dr. Katherine “Katya” Skillestad’s life would be an understatement.

She can relate to her orthodontic patients perhaps more than they could ever imagine. Throughout childhood, Skillestad was self-conscious about smiling or laughing unless she covered her overcrowded teeth with her hand, she says. Orthodontics wasn’t even on her parents’ radar. When she was a baby, her family had emigrated from Uzbekistan, an underdeveloped country in the former USSR, to seek political asylum and a better way of life in Charlotte, North Carolina. Skillestad was 14 years old when another family member urged her parents to take her to an orthodontist.

After experiencing how transformative orthodontic treatment was for me as a high schooler, really bringing me out of my shell, I was determined to share the experience with others,” she says.

Dr. Skillestad (bottom left) with 2019 College of Dentistry co-residents (from top left): Dr. Arun Bala, Dr. Elisabeth Barnhart, Dr. Jacob Bleyer and Dr. Jonathan Havener and (bottom right) Dr. Jennifer Ryan

Skillestad went on to earn her undergraduate and dental degrees from the University of North Carolina and finished her orthodontics residency at Texas A&M College of Dentistry last year. While in Dallas, she won The Journal of Clinical Orthodontics’ prestigious 2019 Eugene L. Gottlieb JCO Student of the Year Award. She is the first Texas A&M College of Dentistry graduate student to win the award.

“Dr. Gottlieb contributed so much to the field of orthodontics in his lifetime, and it was very humbling to receive an award with his name on it,” she says.

Skillestad is now practicing at Smith & Heymann Orthodontics in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, area.

What was especially distinctive about your time in the orthodontics graduate program?

Aside from just having the opportunity to train at one of the best orthodontic residency programs in the country, I have to say the most distinctive part of my residency was the lifelong relationships that I developed with faculty, staff and especially my co-residents. Those relationships made every day feel effortless and engaging. We all worked for the betterment of ourselves and our cohorts, always helping each other along the way. Even now, a year later, my class maintains a tight-knit connection, texting about difficult cases we encounter in private practice as if we were sitting in our resident room at 8 a.m., discussing that morning’s case conference.

What is the most important way Texas A&M College of Dentistry prepared you for practice?

One of the biggest advantages of attending Texas A&M’s orthodontic residency is the quality and diversity of full-time and part-time faculty who devote their time and energy to the program. From the academic side, we were taught treatment planning in a way that incorporated cutting-edge research in the field of orthodontics—utilizing mini-screw implants, 3D printing and various functional appliances (many of our own creation), among other advancements. From the private-practice side, we were taught how to incorporate philosophical ideals into actual practice, practical methods for communicating treatment plans with patients, and more tips and pearls than I can put into words. While there is no doubt a lot to learn during the transition from residency into private practice, I believe that my training at Texas A&M College of Dentistry left me confident and prepared to make that transition.

What’s the best part of your workday?

The best part of my workday is that I get to continuously cultivate relationships with both colleagues and patients. I am so lucky to have joined a practice with an amazing team and two other orthodontists who are each brilliant in their own ways. I am grateful to be able to foster that camaraderie I felt in residency in private practice. I love building relationships with my patients, too. As orthodontists, we are in this special position to see our patients every couple of months for years, learning about everything from their soccer games to their college acceptances to their goals in life. Seeing them through that journey and being able to provide them with the confidence needed to attain their goals is certainly the best part of my day.

Do you learn from your patients?

I learn from my patients nonstop. The adults that we treat have such diverse careers and hobbies. They introduce me to a wealth of new information every day. The teens and kids are honest and innovative in this innocent way that causes me to question a lot of what I think I know. They also keep me up to date on all the latest fads. I may even know a couple of TikTok dances.

What’s the best thing about the dental profession?

Unlike many other health care specialties, we are typically able to diagnose a problem and find a solution. When a patient comes to me with a concern about his or her smile, I love being able to say, “We can fix that!”

Visiting China’s Tiananmen Square with husband Garrett Skillestad

What’s the best part of your life these days?

After three beautiful years in Dallas, the best part of my life these days is being so close to family; my mother and grandmother live nearby, and my husband and I have really begun to build a life in The Triangle area of North Carolina (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill). We frequently take advantage of the weather, hiking and going on walks with our two dogs, and enjoying the Carolina blue skies.

What gets you out of bed in the mornings?

Philosophically, I love orthodontics, and that certainly helps me get out of bed to go to work each day. Realistically, it’s the fourth snooze on my alarm clock and one of the dogs whining to be taken out.

Do you keep in touch with your classmates?

Yes! We talk almost every day. One of my co-residents is getting married soon, and I am so excited to be a part of that day. We had more plans to reunite this summer as well, and hopefully those will come to fruition soon.

If there’s one thing you could tell any child anywhere in the world who is struggling, what would it be?

Find your passion and make it your escape. Focus on a craft, a hobby, or even a far-fetched dream, and hone in on that instead of on what you cannot control.

— Kathleen Green Pothier