Dr. Stephaun Wallace ’19 envisions a world where high-quality healthcare is accessible to all. And every day, this Walden PhD in Public Health graduate takes steps toward that more equitable future, most recently as a leading epidemiologist at the center of COVID-19 vaccine development in the United States.
Wallace became aware of public health disparities at an early age. During his childhood in South Central Los Angeles, he witnessed the outsized impacts of disease on disadvantaged and underserved communities, later understanding its relationship to systemic racism and oppression. Now, he’s leveraging that experience, along with his decades of research in HIV vaccines, to provide better care to the people and communities that are most vulnerable to disease.
“There are those who have access to resources and those who don’t have access to resources. And for some people, they internalize this,” Wallace says. “They believe it’s because they are Black, because they are Hispanic, that they’re not supposed to have access to resources. That they’re not supposed to have the same quality education, the same quality access to healthcare, or even the same quality experiences when engaging in healthcare.” Wallace’s vision for public health in America is challenging and changing all of that.
One way he’s challenging the norm is simply by being visible as a Black man and world-class researcher.
“It’s really important that communities of color, particularly Black communities, also start to really see people who look like them driving these initiatives and occupying positions of leadership and decision-making,” he says.
Throughout 2020, as COVID-19 vaccine development kicked into high gear, Wallace saw an opportunity to make clinical trials more equitable than ever before. He worked closely with his colleagues at the COVID-19 Prevention Network to achieve unprecedented levels of diversity in the trials. For all three major vaccines—Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson—trials included approximately 10% African American and 20% Hispanic participants, numbers generally unheard of in clinical research.
“It isn’t easy to do this, so certainly we can celebrate the diversity numbers,” Wallace says. “But in my estimation, we need to be thinking about engaging communities of color based on the burden of disease that they’re carrying as a population, and not just their population size. So, in that way, I think we should strive for the numbers to be even higher.”
But with other public health crises and systemic racism still at the forefront nationwide, there’s a long way to go until the real end goals of equity of care and access are achieved.
“I think Walden alumni are perfectly positioned—given the institution’s reputation, as well as its penchant for social change—to really support efforts to move our public health and our society forward,” Wallace says. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work and really help to restore balance in this blue marble that we all live in, floating in the universe.”