Ruiz’s Roots

Dr. Steve Ruiz draws on his family’s legacy to set his own path as the AEGD program director in the School of Dental Medicine

Dr. Steve Ruiz is the director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the UConn School of Dental Medicine. (Tina Encarnacion photo)

When it came to selecting a dental residency program for Dr. Steve Ruiz, director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) program, the UConn School of Dental Medicine was a familiar choice.

Both his father, Dr. Eric R. Ruiz, and brother, Dr. Eric F. Ruiz, launched their dental careers at UConn as AEGD residents in the 1980s and 2000s respectively. Following residency, his brother served as the program director from 2009-2016 until he went into private practice.

Today, Ruiz holds the same position that his brother once held.

Ruiz always looked up to both his father and brother. When he accepted the position of the AEGD program director, Ruiz felt the pressure to live up to his brother’s positive reputation. However, Ruiz aimed to do things differently—a desire that he’s possessed since his childhood.

“Growing up, I always looked up to my father and my brother,” said Ruiz. “Although the three of us have different approaches, we all share a strong vocation for teaching.”

The family commitment to academic dental medicine continues as his father is currently instructing oral & maxillofacial surgery in Guatemala and his brother recently rejoined UConn on a part-time volunteer basis in general dentistry.

Family ties

Ruiz was born in Miami, Florida and grew up in Guatemala. He attended Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala for six years, graduating in December 2012 with both a Bachelor of Science and a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree. After dental school, Ruiz worked a year in private practice and applied and interviewed with current dental dean and former program director, Dr. Steven Lepowsky, for the AEGD residency program at UConn.

In 2014, Ruiz was accepted and spent two years in the AEGD program, followed by an oral surgery fellowship at UConn.

“Steve Lepowsky always thought highly of my brother and had high expectations for me. But although we are both Dr. Ruiz, we are different,” Ruiz said. “I am going to make the decisions and changes I feel are important and meet today’s evolving needs, technology and students.”

Ruiz’s wife, Dr. Flor Robles, was also a resident in the AEGD program. The couple met in dental school in Guatemala and got married while they were both residents in 2015. They had a son at UConn John Dempsey Hospital in September 2019 and are expecting a girl in May. Dr. Robles is currently a clinical instructor at the School of Dental Medicine.

After his oral surgery fellowship, Ruiz was offered a faculty position at UConn and spent four years working with special needs patients in Norwich, Connecticut at a Connecticut Department of Developmental Services dental clinic.

In July 2021, Ruiz returned to Farmington and accepted the position as AEGD program director.

Now, as program director for AEGD, Ruiz teaches, manages the program, ensures the program is up to date for accreditation standards, and oversees both resident and patient satisfaction—just as his brother did over five years ago.

Ruiz currently has 29 residents enrolled in the program.

“My first day in the office was the day the new residents came in – it was humbling. I didn’t realize how much I had achieved until I was there, standing in front of these talented young dentists, anxious to get started,” said Ruiz.

New challenges

Navigating a residency program during a pandemic has been a unique challenge for Ruiz that neither his brother or father could have prepared him for. Working alongside COVID protocols and guidelines and modifying the program as needed has been one of Ruiz’s major focuses during his tenure so far as program director.

Residents who have graduated from dental school during the pandemic have been particularly effected, Ruiz noted. There have been many limitations, program challenges and clinical time cuts that forced Ruiz to tailor the program.

“We had residents who had not done many procedures,” Ruiz said. “We had to go back to basics.”

The residents were also working with patients who hadn’t been seen in a year or more, with serious issues due to delaying dental care.

“Patients had significant needs,” Ruiz noted. “Some patients went for extended periods without care, so getting up to speed was difficult. With many community clinics closed, patients funneled to Farmington. There wasn’t much time for prep or orientation, we just had to just jump in.”

Now, even though the pandemic is still present, the program is operating close to pre-pandemic levels under Ruiz’s leadership.

“The blessings of having been a resident meant I already knew protocols and procedures, culture, who to talk with, how to get things done here,” said Ruiz. “I knew the dean and program coordinators and heads, which made things a lot easier.”

“Our administrative program coordinator—Ms. Christine Judd— has also been key. I couldn’t do it without her.”

Looking to the future

In his leadership role, Ruiz looks forward to embracing up and coming technological advances in dentistry to help give residents the cutting edge education they desire and deserve.

Ruiz largely credits his predecessor, Dr. Sergio Sanchez Velasco, and assistant program director Dr. Carlos Degollado for helping the general dentistry department stay up to date with the latest technologies.

“We are experiencing a boom in digital dentistry,” Ruiz says. “In the next three to five years, we will see more changes to  be digital, more accurate and efficient.”

Ruiz is also grateful for the support of division of general dentistry chair Dr. Aadarsh Gopalakrishna, who has helped “take the residency program to new heights.”

Admission to the residency program is also becoming more competitive under Ruiz’s purview. The program has more than 400 applicants from around the world, with only 125 applicants getting an interview on average.

When seeking new residents, Ruiz looks doesn’t just look at technical skills or ability. Ruiz seeks applicants who exceed in critical thinking while also demonstrating a positive personality and character. These requirements align with the high program standards Ruiz has worked to achieve, in the hopes of attracting the best of the best.

“We look for applicants whose core values fit into our high standards. The rest is up to us to teach.”

This story is part of the School of Dental Medicine’s 50th Anniversary celebration.