Creating Smiles, Improving Lives

Interning with AS – Genetics

Hi y’all!
My name is Sophia Viola, and I am a second year MPH student at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I am studying Health Behavior and Health
Education with a certificate in Public Health Genetics. I will be graduating in
Spring ’22 and hope to pursue a PhD in Public Health Genetics at the
University of Washington.
As a Michigander, many of you might be wondering what enticed me to intern
at Austin Smiles as a Global Health intern. The funny thing is, I grew up in the
Houston suburbs and both of my siblings were born there! So, for my summer
practicum experience I wanted to contribute to the Texas community in some
way while getting experience in global health. Unfortunately, because of
COVID many global health opportunities were cancelled or postponed.
However, after many months of searching, I found Austin Smiles. As a
nonprofit organization dedicated to providing sustainable surgical care to
children with cleft lip and palate both in Central Texas and Latin America, I
was intrigued by their mission. As I began to research further, what I fell in
love with was their dedication to changing the stigma surrounding clefts and
providing holistic support for their families. As a genetics student, I was
familiar with clefts as they are symptoms of certain genetic syndromes. I
thought this internship was an amazing opportunity to use my genetic
expertise for a wonderful cause. As a prospective public health professional, I
also wanted to gain experience working directly for a nonprofit; learning how
funding is acquired, event planning, and organization of medical records.
After interviewing with Renee and Ellise, I knew these were genuinely good
people looking to make a difference in children’s lives and I wanted to help in
any way possible. From the local programming which focuses on providing
children and families in Central Texas with social-emotional support through
local events, to their global impact on Latin American communities by
providing children free cleft surgeries, this organization puts people first. It has
been a blessing and privilege to meet these amazing people, contribute to a
global health effort, and learn more about myself in the process.
Working for this organization this summer has taught me valuable lessons in
fundraising, grant writing, medical practice, organization, and how genetics can
play a role in cleft diagnosis. In fact, many soon-to-be parents in the cleft
community have gotten prenatal genetic testing done to determine whether
their child will have a cleft. The gene usually tested for this is called MTHFR,
which is associated with a condition called homocystinuria. The MTHFR gene

encodes for a protein that is responsible for the metabolism of active folate.
When we ingest folate or vitamin B9 through our diet, our body converts it into
its “active” form known as levomefolic acid (5-MTHF). Our body then
metabolizes the active form into energy. If you have a mutation in the MTHFR
gene, then the protein responsible for this process doesn’t work properly
leading to a folic acid deficiency. If the mother has this mutation and therefore
a folic acid deficiency, this could be a cause of cleft development. The
research study showed that establishing a maternal family history of this gene
mutation might help determine if folic acid supplements during pregnancy
could decrease the risk of children being born with oral clefts.
In addition to learning a great deal about genetic links to oral clefts and how
this could help parents in the future, I have learned how important cultivating
personal relationships is to an organization. One of the most fulfilling parts of
this internship besides being able to contribute to a greater cause was
learning from both Renee and Ellise about relationships. They work incredibly
hard to establish relationships not just with the local Texas community but
internationally as well. It makes you really understand the power of
establishing good relationships when you see other countries reaching out
because they have heard about the great work this organization has done in
El Salvador and Guatemala. It warms your heart to hear stories about these
children and families being given renewed hope for the future because of the
work done by Austin Smiles. With that, I hope to continue to cultivate my
relationship with Austin Smiles and make a positive impact on the world.

Sophia Viola
Global Public Health Intern
Summer 2021


1 in 700 children are born with a cleft lip or palate

$250 covers the cost of one life-changing surgery

150 volunteers annually will change a child’s life forever

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Austin Smiles goes on 2-3 medical mission trips annually

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Our local program support for children born with Cleft Lip and Palate in Texas

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