Oral Surgery Award honours a cherished father’s memory

Reena Talwar follows her father’s example of selfless generosity and hopes her endowment helps more women enter the demanding field of oral and maxillofacial surgery

Sasha Roeder Mah - 18 November 2022

When University of Alberta dentistry instructor and oral and maxillofacial surgeon Reena Talwar was a child, her house was always full. Her father Jagmohan Singh Talwar, who had emigrated to Canada from India, made it his mission to bring as many young extended family members over as he could, opening his heart and his home to them for months at a time while they pursued a better life. 

“They lived in our home until they were on their feet,” she recalls. “There was never any question of them paying rent. I grew up surrounded by those values.”  

Back home, Talwar’s father had been an electrical engineer. But that training was not recognized in Canada, so he did what many other immigrants have had to do — found whatever work he could to support his family, while painstakingly carving out a new career for himself. He worked nights as a security guard while attending school during the day, eventually pivoting to become a chartered public accountant. 

Talwar’s father passed on to his children his passion for education and the pursuit of a meaningful career, and most of all a generous spirit. When he passed away in 2015, Talwar knew she wanted to honour his contributions through her own work. She opened her clinic, Contours Oral Surgery, in honour of him in 2016, and shortly thereafter endowed the Talwar Contours Oral Surgery Award in his memory.

Talwar has taught at the University of Alberta for the past 12 years, while practising as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. The early years of her career included time at the University of Kentucky and the University of Toronto, but when her now husband had an opportunity to move to Edmonton for his career, Talwar interviewed for the position of full-time academic oral surgeon at the U of A and joined him. “I loved the size of the faculty. I knew I would have more one-on-one relationships with students and the faculty was very welcoming. I felt like there would be a lot of opportunity to collaborate on research and academic ideas; I felt it was a welcoming environment with a lot of open doors.”

And now, with the scholarship she’s endowed in her father’s name, she is the one opening doors — to dentistry students with demonstrated need and, ideally, a passion for oral surgery. “I want to help take the pressure off anybody who is driven but who might have a financial handicap,” she says. And there’s something else motivating this award: Until two years ago, Talwar was the only woman practising oral surgery in all of Western Canada. “It’s very male dominated,” she says. “To me, that’s really kind of strange in 2022.” She’s only too aware of the sacrifices required to succeed in that space, particularly for women, so Talwar would really love to see her scholarship support young women in pursuing the same path she did.

While Talwar hopes this endowment would encourage more women to join the profession of oral and maxillofacial surgery, the award is open to any third-year doctor of dental surgery students with demonstrated need and satisfactory academic standing. So far, there have been two grateful recipients — Komalben Zalawadia in 2020-21, and Brian Chang in 2021-22.

Like Talwar, Zalawadia credits her family for her motivation in pursuing a very demanding career. “My grandfather continually instilled in me the attributes of hard work and empathy. Being a farmer, he met a lot of challenges which made him encourage us to appreciate education,” she says. Dentistry appeals to Zalawadia — whose brother is also a dentist — because it combines two of her strongest passions: working with her hands, and helping patients who are in pain. 

“Dental school comes with many challenges,” she says, “and through this award I was able to overcome them and achieve my educational and professional goals. Dr. Talwar’s generosity helps pave the way to success for students like myself, and there aren’t enough words to express my profound appreciation.”

Chang couldn’t agree more. “It is an incredible honour to receive such a prestigious award,” he says. Chang worked as a registered nurse in an oral maxillofacial surgery practice prior to embarking on dental school. This experience ultimately inspired his career change. The fourth-year student has teamed up with a couple of his classmates and a group of oral surgeons to look at how to decrease pain in patients undergoing jaw surgery. “We are currently gathering data for this clinical trial and we hope to present these findings at the next oral surgery conference,” he says. 

“It gives me such pleasure to honour the memory of my father and his generosity and kindness toward young individuals striving for a better life and career,” says Talwar. “And I want to give back through the U of A because I’ve had a great career here and I feel like I’m part of the family.”

 Application information for the 2023 Talwar award will be circulated to all eligible students early in the new year.