Dr. Stephen B. Thomas, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland College Park, joined The Science Coalition for Celebrate Scientists Day and to discuss his work in public health to eliminate health disparities and expand health equity.

Dr. Stephen B. Thomas is not your average doctor. With a background in community health education, Dr. Thomas wears a much more interesting hat: that of a public health researcher.

Public health is interdisciplinary in nature, bridging medical and social sciences as well as incorporating a critical communications component. It has a broad scope – how does one improve the health of the public? An entire population? – but Dr. Thomas takes a hyperlocal focus when working to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.

As the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity (M-CHE), Dr. Thomas created the Health Advocates In-Reach and Research (HAIR) campaign, which has engaged barbers and stylists in promoting health education amongst their communities.

Some might ask, why take health advice from barbers and stylists? The answer has to do with trust.

Dr. Thomas received an NIH-NIAID Mentored Career Development Award (K01) for his research exploring the Tuskegee Syphilis Study’s effects on Black Americans’ trust and willingness to participate in medical and public health research. His contributions helped lead to the 1997 Presidential Apology to Survivors of the Syphilis Study Done at Tuskegee.

Social and historical contexts can greatly impact under- and never-served populations’ attitudes and behaviors toward health care and medical providers. With traditional avenues failing to connect communities of color with adequate health resources, Dr. Thomas took a shortcut and went straight to those who already held the trust of their community: barbers and stylists.

Since its creation, HAIR has mobilized barbershops and beauty salons to promote colorectal cancer and other health and wellness screenings, increase immunization rates, and further advance health equity.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation and distrust shrouded disease prevention practices. Black Americans’ vaccination rates lagged behind those of other groups. Shots at the Shop built on HAIR’s successes and partnered with the White House to recruit 1,000 Black-owned barbershops and hair salons to dispel myths and disinformation about COVID-19 and administer vaccines on-site.

Learn more about how the Center for Health Equity is working with communities and developing multidisciplinary approaches to improve public health: