Story by SrA Julia Sorber on 10/10/2018Her successes weren't handed to her, she had to work to get to where she is today as an Airman, doctor and business owner. Her career path has included more than nine years of intense graduate and undergraduate schooling, admissions exams, certifications, officer training school, adjusting to life abroad, and everything that comes along with opening two of your own businesses.
Lt. Col. Nicole Yingling is serving her country as a dentist with the 193rd Special Operations Medical Group here, is a board-certified civilian endodontic and owns and operates two private practice locations.
Yingling started her educational journey at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts. While picking courses for her chemical engineering major, Yingling had an eye-opening moment where she realized that she would be spending 25 percent of her time at school studying something that she didn't like, which led to her switching her major to biotechnology.
"Back in the 1980's the biotechnology and genetic engineering industries were booming, so I thought it was a great move," said Yingling.
Her time as an undergraduate student was coming to an end and upon discussing her post-graduation plans with the dean of her university, he convinced her that if she didn't continue her education she would be washing beakers in a lab for years to come.
I was so set on getting a job right after earning my four-year degree that I hadn't put any thought into continuing my education, and quite frankly, I didn't want to, Yingling explained.
With a heavy decision weighing on her shoulders, this is when Yingling turned to her father for advice on what she should do, in which he replied that she should consider medical school.
"Medical school nights, weekends, life, death - that wasn't something I was interested in," Yingling confessed.
Then her father more specifically suggested dental school.
Yingling's first thought when he suggested this was, "I had braces, I had my wisdom teeth out and that was all fine."
"On a more serious note, I had always liked doing stuff with my hands when it came to arts and crafts when I was younger, so that summer I decided to shadow our family dentist," said Yingling.
Upon graduating with her Bachelor of Science in biotechnology in 1988 from WPI, she had made the decision to pursue dental school. Yingling's next steps were to prepare for and take the Dental Admission Test, which was required in order to apply to any dental school.
"After getting accepted I chose to go to the University of Connecticut's dental school, which was a four-year program," Yingling explained.
As she neared the end of this rigorous, four-year program, Yingling felt she needed to learn more before she went out and practiced dentistry on her own.
"My classmates were doing procedures that I hadn't done yet and I was doing procedures that they hadn't done yet," Yingling explained. "I didn't know enough, I needed to learn more."
She knew at this point that she wanted to do a one-year general practice residency after graduating and started to explore her options. This is when she came across a note that an active duty Air Force recruiter put on the school's bulletin board, offering a free lunch if students came to hear about a general practice residency with the Air Force.
"I'm a starving dental student, I'll go for a free lunch and hear what they have to say," Yingling thought to herself at the time. "It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for."
She explored all of her options and talked to different branches of the military, but ultimately decided to accept the position offered to her by the Air Force. Upon completing her Doctor of Dental Medicine degree in 1992, Yingling was sent to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for her one-year advanced education residency in general dentistry.
As her residency was nearing its end, Yingling found herself in another predicament - she had to fill out her dream sheet. In other words, she needed to decide on a few places where she would like to complete her two-year service commitment with the Air Force.
I filled out my sheet with bases mostly located in the western United States, and somewhere in the middle of the list I had Germany, said Yingling.
"But at that time in my residency I was doing a rotation with an oral surgeon who had been around a long time," Yingling explained. "He looked over my list and made me redo it, putting Aviano as my first choice."
I just kept thinking that they would never pick me because there was only one spot there, which I wasn't upset about because I didn't want to eat spaghetti and lasagna for two years, Yingling joked.
She ended up getting selected for the general dentist officer position at Aviano Air Base, Italy, and says that to this day, putting Aviano as number one on her dream sheet was the best advice she had ever received.
Yingling mentioned that as her two-year commitment came to an end, they asked her to extend for another year, prolonging her commitment to 1996, and she happily accepted. This decision resulted in her meeting her husband who moved to Aviano Air Base that next year. After getting married, Yingling and her husband started a family and relocated to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where they lived and served until 1999.
In addition to traveling and meeting her husband while in the Air Force, there were other benefits to being an active duty dentist in the military, Yingling stated. She was able to enlist as a captain, and later in her military career she was offered the opportunity to choose a career specialty, where she would go back to school to gain more knowledge, the schooling was paid for and she would continue to receive her full salary. In addition to this great opportunity, she was also being required to pursue board certification after completing the schooling for her specialty.
"When you specialize in dentistry, there's the opportunity to become board certified, which isn't mandatory," said Yingling. "It consists of multiple phases spread out over years, with nine years being the maximum amount of time you have to complete it."
Yingling was accepted into a competitive endodontics program at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, where she furthered her education and specialized in the treatment of root canals. After completing this program in 2001, her and her family relocated to Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C., where she finished out her active duty military career as the director of endodontics and separated in 2003.
While there were benefits to being a dentist in the military, Yingling stated that there were also some challenges that she had to face.
"Coming in as a captain, everyone thought I had been in for four or five years, when in reality I had only been [active duty] for a week," said Yingling. "Everyone assumed I had knowledge so I needed to make sure I didn't embarrass myself."
A second challenge she had to face was a major contributing factor to why her and her husband separated from the active duty scene.
"We had been lucky so far but chances were high that our future assignments would be split up and we didn't want that with the kids," Yingling stated.
After separating from active duty, Yingling and her family settled down in Gettysburg where her and her husband opened an endodontics practice, Mason-Dixon Endodontics, in 2003. They now own and operate a second endodontics practice located in Chambersburg, which opened in 2009.
Later that same year, Yingling completed all of the phases for her certification and was officially board certified.
"It took so much work and I am very proud of it," Yingling confessed. "There are only about 20 percent of us that are board certified."
In addition to this accomplishment, Yingling also published a journal contribution in 2002 and has been an active member of six different associations throughout her career.
Yingling's next career steppingstone was in 2015 when she enlisted into the 193rd SOMDG as a general dentist.
"I had always been at a base with other dentists and the thing I missed most as a civilian dentist was the camaraderie and someone to talk to about stuff, and I wanted that back," said Yingling. "I tell my family and friends it was a mid-life crisis. Some people go out and buy sports cars, I enlisted back into the Air Force."
Even though she has only been with the 193rd Special Operations Wing here for three years, Yingling's peers say that she has been an asset to the wing.
"Not only is Dr. Yingling one of our talented dentists," said Col. Julie Carpenter, 193rd SOMDG commander. "But she is also chairperson of our Infection Control Committee. She is dedicated to ensuring the dental health of our wing population and takes every advantage to incorporate teaching healthy dental habits into each patient encounter."
Yingling enjoys working with patients because of how rewarding it is being able to help people, but adds that it can also be hard at times.
"When I was active duty, I remember patients always wanted to be there," said Yingling. "Then I came to the civilian world expecting the same thing, but found that my civilian patients have a lot of anxiety. Some are upset because they're missing work, others because it's costing them a lot of money, they're in pain, and some just don't want to be here."
For Yingling, however, the rewarding moments in her career overcome tough times, and she's happy with where her path has taken her.
"I think that for me, I have the perfect balance," said Yingling. "I have the independence of owning my own practice and making my own decisions, but I also have the camaraderie of the military and the satisfaction of serving my country."