Feature: A service-oriented approach to leadership

By Emily Leighton, MA'13


Spanish for “forward” or “onwards”, it’s a word that holds special meaning for Dr. Carlos Quiñonez. In hard times, it pushes him to keep going. In good times, it inspires him to achieve.

As he begins his first term as Vice Dean and Director of Schulich Dentistry on June 1, Quiñonez is moving forward with great enthusiasm and optimism for this next chapter in his academic career.

“As a leader, I bring a lot of ideas, passion and energy to everything I do,” he said. “I take pride in discipline and hard work, and I also want people around me to feel safe, respected and cared for.”

Born in El Salvador, Quiñonez spent his early childhood in the country. “We had a good life in a country with a lot of inequity, so I was taught at a very young age that fairness and justice matter,” he said.

As political tensions in the country escalated in the late 70s and early 80s, his family faced persecution. They made their way to Canada as political refugees, landing first in London, Ontario for a few months. “London was one of the first places we had some level of respite,” said Quiñonez. “We were graciously supported by the local community, and we have never forgotten.”

From there, his father took an opportunity to re-train as an anatomical pathologist in Hamilton, while his mother worked in a daycare to keep the family afloat. His father was later appointed to the faculty at the University of Manitoba’s medical school and the family settled in Winnipeg when Quiñonez was about 12 years old.

“I’m a Winnipegger, it’s where I grew up,” he said.

With a father and brother in the medical profession and a sister attending dental school, Quiñonez was drawn toward a career in health care even as an adolescent. 

“My family used to joke, ‘Carlos, you have all the choices in the world, you can become any kind of doctor you want’,” he said with a laugh.

Entering dental school at the age of 19 – only two years of undergraduate studies were needed to apply at the time – Quiñonez credits the educators and mentors who shaped him as a young professional, providing opportunities to learn and grow in a variety of settings, including work with underserved populations and Indigenous communities in Manitoba and the Arctic. 

At 23 years old, he graduated from dental school as the valedictorian of his class. “I think because of my passion, my peers honoured me with this distinction – I always had something to say, I was always trying to stand up for something or somebody,” he said.

Quiñonez completed a master’s degree in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba in 2004, with a focus on the political economy of dentistry in Nunavut. He then completed his PhD and specialty training in dental public health at the University of Toronto (U of T) in 2009. His doctoral research investigated the political economy of dentistry in Canada.

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Quiñonez joined the faculty at U of T. He now leads the graduate program in dental public health.  

His vision as Vice Dean is to build Schulich Dentistry into Canada’s premiere dental school. “It’s an aspirational vision, and we get there by doing our very best in education, research and service,” Quiñonez said.

He points to curriculum renewal as a priority, as well as finding ways to put Schulich Dentistry on the map in new research areas.

“Our responsibility is to society and our patients,” he said. “We are an essential health service, and we need strong engagement with dentistry’s social contract in all that we do.”

With research, Quiñonez says this starts by thinking about ways to improve patient care – through new clinical therapies, but also other areas such as health policy, economic issues and environmental sustainability.

With dental education, he emphasizes that future dentists need to understand how they fit into the bigger picture of health care in Canada. “There’s a need to modernize the curriculum and ensure we are responding to the realities of dental practice today,” he said.

He also sees tremendous opportunities for service to the local community, building on existing strengths in community outreach. “In dentistry, we’re plagued with an access to care issue,” he said. “We do a lot already, but how can we be of service in more efficient and effective ways?”

For Quiñonez, service also includes support for London and area dental professionals, as well as alumni, faculty and staff. “We must also consider how to be of service to each other because we all have important roles to play in Schulich Dentistry’s operations,” he said.  

Joining a collaborative and interdisciplinary community at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Western University, he shares excitement for the strong connections and opportunities between dentistry, medicine, public health and other health professions.

“We have a wonderful home here,” he said. “I’m committed to supporting the School’s overall vision and strategic direction, while also championing the uniqueness of Schulich Dentistry.”

A successful researcher, Quiñonez recently published a book, The Politics of Dental Care in Canada, a culmination of his extensive work exploring the history, politics and economics of dentistry with a social equity lens.

He currently leads the One Smile research program based at U of T, established by a philanthropic gift of $6.15 million from Green Shield Canada. The gift also created the Green Shield Canada Clinic, providing cost-free dental care to working poor families within the Greater Toronto Area. 

Together, the research program and clinic are exploring how dental care impacts individuals, their families and the health care system. “It’s really about looking at the return on investment for dental care and to see how it can change lives,” Quiñonez said.

He hopes to continue similar clinical research at Schulich Dentistry, as well as pursue his research interests in dentists and the dental profession. 

“I think dentists are a fascinating group and I’m interested in what makes them tick,” he explained. “There is so much value in collecting data from dentists, and in conducting research by dentists for dentists.”  

Quiñonez’ personal achievements include a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, which took a decade of rigorous training five to six days per week to attain. “It’s taught me the importance of strategy, survival, compassion, and of being comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations,” he said.

His most important accomplishment and source of pride is family – his wife, Ruth, daughter Emilia, age 8, and son Javier, age 4. “We’re all excited to be coming to London, we feel so lucky,” he said.

Arriving in June, he is looking forward to learning more, engaging with people and building relationships. “I’m here to be of service, to serve students, the faculty, staff, instructors, alumni, the School, the University and the community,” he said. “Adelante, let’s move forward together.”