#UMMCGrad15: From drug rep to D.M.D.
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After carving out a thick slice of the American Dream, Olivia Cook decided to punch the reset button.
A pharmaceutical sales representative with a thriving business - the territory surrounding her home base in Tupelo had stretched for more than 150 miles and included 350 doctor-clients - Cook had a nice house in her hometown, a company car and a loving husband who she had met through her work.
Yet after almost a decade in the pharmaceutical trade, she longed for something different.
"The pharmaceutical industry was very different 10-15 years ago, before generic drugs came along," Cook said. "It became a totally different atmosphere, a lot more uncertain, and I didn't want to live with the instability."
After her company launched a narcotic medication that her sales partners marketed to area dentists, Cook joined her friends for a dentistry Lunch and Learn one afternoon and quickly became fascinated with the profession.
She found herself observing area dentists and their staff and called upon her own personal dentist for a "behind-the-scenes" look at his practice. It didn't take long for Cook to decide that a career change was the best medicine for what was ailing her.
"I prayed about it and decided to go back to school," Cook said. But it wasn't as simple as applying to dental school - first, she had to return to her alma mater for two years' worth of prerequisite courses at the University of Mississippi.
"I had to resign my position, turn in my car and sell my house, which was really hard for me," she said. "We moved to Oxford and I took classes to prepare for the Dental Admissions Test.
"I scored well, applied to dental school and got in on my first try."
It wasn't the only life-changing event Cook and her husband experienced at that time. Nine months before she would enter the School of Dentistry, the couple's daughter was born.
"I hadn't really studied hard in 10 years, and now I was having classes in gross anatomy and neuroscience," Cook said. "I felt like I was behind the 8 ball. I just looked at it (dental school) like it was my job. I came in, put my head down and did it.
"On Saturdays and Sundays, I would come here to the library, and my husband and daughter would bring me lunch and we would have a picnic on the grounds. That was just about our only family time."
Then, to add another degree of difficulty to her new career quest, Cook developed a troubling thyroid condition that looked as if it might completely upend her educational pursuits.
"I didn't tell anybody," she said, "but I thought I might have to withdraw a couple of times. I still battle with it."
Through the darkest times, Cook said she relied on her faith, her family and her fellow classmates, many of whom delight in calling her "Mama Liv."
"I'm definitely the 'momma' of my classmates," she said. "We have gotten so close, I can't imagine going through the last four years without them."
Cook managed to excel in spite of her challenges and developed an interest in endodontics, for which she credits Dr. Scott Gatewood, professor of endodontics, and Dr. Pia Chatterjee Kirk, her academic advisor for three years.
"Olivia has shown an exceptional ability to maintain balance in her life and career goals - with family, academics, extracurricular activities and planning for the future," Gatewood said.
"Olivia has been an exceptional student. She truly understands the value of helping others," said Kirk, associate professor of care planning and restorative sciences. "Her ability to prioritize what is important alongside her work ethic allowed her to beautifully balance school and family."
The day after commencement, Cook will set out for Columbus, Ohio, to begin an endodontics residency at Ohio State University. But she will keep an eye on her home state and the possibility of returning to the academic arena in Mississippi - just not as a student.
"I would like to see private patients and come back here to teach," Cook said. "I think it's important to cultivate that interest in the profession in students.
"It's absolutely amazing to look back and see how the love of God and the support of my family has gotten me where I am. I took a different journey to get here, but I also wouldn't change it at all."