10 Under 10: Lessons learned as young patient shaped Seattle dentist's career

Family fun: Harlyn Susarla, D.M.D., skis in Utah with her husband and two daughters.

A significant childhood event was key to Harlyn Susarla, D.M.D., choosing a career in health care. It inspired her desire and determination to pursue a role in public health and, ultimately, pediatric dentistry.

"When I was an infant, I sustained a substantial third-degree burn to my right leg," Dr. Susarla said. "Consequently, as a small child, I spent a lot of time in doctor's appointments and hospitals. Fortunately, my health care providers made it so that going to see the doctor wasn't scary; they made me feel safe."

Although she doesn't remember the actual experience of being injured or the initial hospitalization, Dr. Susarla does recall the many years of follow-up treatments. Having spent her childhood in the care of specialists working to ensure proper healing and to preserve her ability to walk helped her build empathy for children who interact with health care professionals.

"Because of my own experiences with health care providers, I was able to recover from my injury and have a life of a typical child," she said. "I always knew in the back of my mind that whatever I did, I wanted to be able to give back to others; a career in health care was a natural fit."

Dr. Susarla has since built a commendable career as a board-certified pediatric dentist and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. She is also a 2022 ADA 10 Under 10 Award recipient, recognized for her advocacy in children's oral health and strong commitment to service.

Dr. Susarla lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband and two daughters. In April, she joined the staff at Seattle Children's Odessa Brown Children's Clinic. She also works in private practice at Ballard Pediatric Dentistry one day a week.

An English major with a math minor at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she later earned a master's degree in public health from Boston University and then a dental degree from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 2013. She completed her residency in pediatric dentistry at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in 2016.

A young Harlyn Susarla, D.M.D., wins second place at her first figure skating competition.
Artistic and athletic: A young Harlyn Susarla, D.M.D., wins second place at her first figure skating competition.

Born and raised in the greater Los Angeles area, Dr. Susarla was a curious kid with a twinge of mischief here and there.

"I guess a nice way of putting it is that I had a sense of wonder and was always asking questions, sometimes getting myself into little predicaments," she said.

Her parents, who emigrated from India, provided grounding.

"My father was a physician," she said. "My mother — a scientist. This certainly also piqued my interest in health care.  My parents consistently emphasized the importance of education as a window to opportunity — as it was for them when they immigrated to the United States. They always said, 'Whatever you do, make sure you're passionate about it. That is the key to a fulfilling life.'"

Early in life, Dr. Susarla's parents introduced her to competitive figure skating, which helped her to rebound from her burn injuries.

"One day, my mom passed a skating rink and said, 'That would be amazing if my daughter could have an opportunity to do this,'" she said. "I've always been drawn to the arts — figure skating struck the ideal balance between athleticism and artistic expression."

Along those lines, Dr. Susarla also likes to draw and paint and played the violin growing up.

"I enjoy activities that are technical but also have an artistic side," she said.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Wellesley, Dr. Susarla remained interested in health care but was not certain of a direction just yet. Her search led her to work in a laboratory studying the mechanisms of HIV transmission. Simultaneously, she also volunteered for the AIDS Action Committee, an organization in Boston dedicated to serving the needs of those with and at risk for HIV/AIDS. That experience would indirectly draw her closer to dentistry.

"One of my supervisors, who at the time was HIV positive, was talking to me about the importance of oral health for patients who are HIV positive or otherwise immunocompromised," Dr. Susarla said. "I then realized that there was a really nice connection between dentistry and public health. At that point, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to move forward with being a dentist, but I knew I wanted to do something in public health. So, I thought, 'Well, let’s see where this takes me.'"

She drew even closer to a decision about pursuing dentistry while working on her master's degree in public health at Boston University, where she concentrated in epidemiology and maternal child health. She simultaneously worked as a pediatric dental assistant in a school-based community health program.

"As a dental assistant working with children, I realized that, just as my health care providers had made such a difference in my life at such a young age, I could really touch somebody's life — not just that of the patient, but of their entire family," Dr. Susarla said. "That was really meaningful to me. I also love working with kids, which helped me realize that pediatric dentistry was the perfect career for me. The wonderful thing about being a dentist is that it allows you so many different ways to effect change — clinically, through research, teaching, leadership and community-based efforts — and I found that public health fit seamlessly with pediatric dentistry."

Harlyn Susarla, D.M.D., works at at Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic
Public health: Harlyn Susarla, D.M.D., works at at Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic.

Dr. Susarla is involved in organized dentistry at the local, state, regional and national levels, as well as in the pediatric specialty. In April, she was elected president-elect of the Seattle-King County Dental Society, where she is a delegate and a member of the Special Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Leadership Development and Membership committees.

She also serves on the Nominations Committee and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Workgroup for the Washington State Dental Association; is a past president of the Washington State Academy of Pediatric Dentistry; and is a Washington state representative for the Western Society of Pediatric Dentistry.

Nationally, Dr. Susarla is a trustee for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Foundation, the new diplomate representative for the College of Diplomates of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry and a consultant on both the AAPD Council on Scientific Affairs and the Committee on Early Career Pediatric Dentists.

In her free time, Dr. Susarla loves to read, cook and explore new places. Before COVID-19, she was an avid traveler and even lived abroad in Dublin, Ireland, for a year.

"I think that you can learn a lot by experiencing new places and cultures," she said.

Dr. Susarla loves taking part in adventures and experiences with her family, especially her two daughters, ages 9 and 6.

"I spend a lot of time with them, seeing the world through their eyes and just trying to navigate being a mom to them with trying to figure out how to balance it all," she said. "I am fortunate to have a strong support system and a true partner in my spouse, who, like my parents, has always encouraged me to pursue my passions."

Learn more about the 10 Under 10 Award program and read about the other winners at

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