Dr. Shamard Charles may be a new face among the St. Francis College faculty, but he is likely familiar to many who turn on the evening news at the end of each day.
Since 2017, Dr. Charles has been a journalist with NBC News, covering the health and medical beat first as a web writer and then as an on-air contributor. His more than 100 stories there include an in-depth examination of the lack of Black men in medicine, the disproportionate rate of junk food ads targeting Black and Hispanic kids and the rise in underage vaping.
Dr. Charles' media credentials extend beyond the peacock network. As a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations General Assembly for the past three years, he spent time in Nigeria, covering the efforts to eliminate polio there. He also writes regularly for The Grio (see his most recent column here) and hosts a weekly health podcast, Heart Over Hype.
A graduate of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Dr. Charles earned a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His undergraduate degree in psychology comes from NYU. The Bushwick, Brooklyn native attended Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York.
Dr. Charles joined St. Francis College in September 2020 as an Assistant Professor of Public Health & Health Promotion. He recently reflected on this new professional chapter and his career to date.
Why did you choose to join the St. Francis College family?
Brooklyn is home, [and] I've always wanted to come back home. I have two family members [and] three close friends who attended SFC, so it's always been near and dear on a familial level.
Being the product of a Catholic education, the allure of being able to give back to this community specifically was certainly high up on my list. Having the honor of being a member of the SFC community has been a real shining light in a very dim 2020.
You joined St. Francis College when most of our courses are being taught remotely. How's it going?
At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of students had this hope that "we'll probably be back in school by September," and that hasn't happened. I think that the expectation of it all has been something that I've had to navigate. It's been a little bit of an obstacle, but the students are wonderful.
My interaction with students is all online for this semester...The courses that I teach are Introduction to Public Health, Community Health and History of Medicine, which is an honors course so it gives me an opportunity to engage with students who more towards the end of their [St. Francis College] journey.
Public health is such a hot-button issue right now. What is your approach to teaching it?
I think that the greatest gift that we, as teachers, can give to our students is to enhance their ability to think on their own, to come up with their own answers and their own conclusions. But those conclusions need to be rooted in some type of evidence. As humans, we have gut visceral feelings about what's happening. But sometimes your gut feeling is wrong.
In the field of public health, we have to provide logical data to support our feelings. We don't discount our feelings. The feeling is what drives the field.
You see racism, and you have a visceral feeling that, "I think that's bad. I don't think that that should be happening." What I try to impress upon my students is when you have that visceral feeling, the first thing that you need to do is try to find data that supports or refutes that feeling.
Then engage in partnership. Look around you and see if anyone has feelings that may be similar to yours.
The next step is to talk about it and come up with a plan you can carry out.
The last step is to evaluate that plan on multiple levels. The first level is to ask yourself, "do I do this in my personal life?" and then "can I engage other people to do this in their personal lives?"
You have been a high-profile journalist and very active in media. Tell us about that part of your career.
I've always thought that it was a really good thing that I was raised in a resource-poor area, because all of the
information that came to me was easy to understand. I think that that is incredibly powerful.
Health journalism was a way for me to increase health literacy...I got a writing mentor who became the senior managing director of the health and medical unit at NBC. My roots are in digital authorship. I have probably 150 published articles for NBC News.
Over time, [NBC] producers would want to turn some of my stories into broadcast pieces. They said "well, why don't we have the author narrate the piece [on air]?"...It wasn't necessarily something I was seeking out, but my professional experiences prepared me to be able to transition from a digital author to broadcast personality.
I've always been someone who had high moral integrity, and I think that that has helped me greatly in this field because I'm a trusted voice...Over my time at NBC, I progressed to getting a senior position that allowed me to have more editorial control over some of the stories that we ran.
I wanted to present stories that were more reflective of different populations....I think almost 50 percent of the physicians in the United States are women. There's no reason why 60 or 70 percent of the [health-related] stories should be about men...Same thing with underrepresented minorities. I wanted to make sure that we were accurately representing all the Black and Brown and South Asian and Latinx communities that are involved in health care.
COVID has pushed public health to the fore of public discourse in ways not seen in generations. How has that impacted your work?
If you spoke to me this time last year, I would never have imagined all the publicity that public health would get. And all of the student engagement in the many movements that are happening now. I think we are [also] in a very weird, but quite frankly cyclical period of racial discrimination and police misconduct. During class, I have a lot of students who may not necessarily be interested in a career in public health, but certainly have a lot of public health questions about what's happening.
I hope from [my] class that at least a handful of people will be inspired to pursue a public health career.
Photos top to bottom: Dr. Shamard Charles; Dr. Charles in a makeshift clinic in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico after 2017's Hurricane Maria