Fixing Sailors’ Smiles
Josephine “Joy” Vargas ’13 leads the dental team for a Navy aircraft carrier
by Lori Ferguson

As a dentist on land, providing a patient with a partial denture is no big deal. When you’re out to sea on a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, however, you’ve got to get a bit creative, observes Josephine “Joy” Vargas ’13. “It’s challenging, because we have to make do with materials we have on hand, but we get it done,” she says.

A lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps, Vargas is deployed in the Middle East aboard the 5th Fleet’s USS Abraham Lincoln. She leads a team of three dentists, an oral surgeon and 14 corpsmen treating more than 5,000 sailors.

Life aboard ship can be stressful, she concedes. “I live a mixture of dentistry and military life,” she explains. “I live in my workplace, my days are long, and we’re deployed, so the stress level in our environment is constant.”

Josephine Vargas and Jamie Noles on deploy aboard USS a
Photo: Richard Flynn
Josephine Vargas ’13 with her dental technician, Jamie Noles, on deployment aboard USS Abraham Lincoln outside the Straits of Gibraltar.

On the plus side, Vargas says there’s never a shortage of patients, and the men and women for whom she cares are a constant source of inspiration. “Most of our patients are pretty young — between 18 and 30 — and it’s awesome to see what they do. Everyone has a very specific job, and we all work together — I liken it to bees in a beehive.”

Vargas joined the Navy through the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) shortly before graduating from Bucknell. “I wanted to go to dental school, and the HPSP program was a great way to do that,” says the cell biology and biochemistry major. Vargas earned her D.M.D. at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine in 2017.

“I love being in the Navy — there are lots of places you can go, and as a dentist aboard ship, you’ve got to be able to stand on your own two feet and have the courage of your convictions, because conventional treatments aren’t always available,” she says. “It’s very rewarding.”