Tremaine Sails-Dunbar knows his public health niche: it’s the intersection of Black men’s mental health
and religion. His path began with an agreement with God in the summer of 2013 when
the brand-new high school graduate found himself homeless, largely due to inadequate
access to mental health treatment.
“I promised God that if he changed my life, I would give it to him,” Sails-Dunbar
With the intention of becoming a pastor, he began studying theology at American Baptist
College. What he found, however, was a passion for research.
Sails-Dunbar realized his true calling was to help others facing similar challenges
by becoming a public mental health researcher for underserved groups. During his undergraduate
program, he received multiple fellowships to support his advocacy and research activities
in these areas. He then enrolled in a master’s program at Vanderbilt Divinity School,
where he was awarded a $10,000 grant to help connect African American religious communities
with mental health resources.
As a first-generation college-student, Sails-Dunbar says he saw education’s ability
to elevate someone out of poverty and improve their health, well-being and social
opportunities firsthand. This observation, and his passion for public mental health
research, led him to join the Arnold School’s Ph.D. in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) program.
“I hope to work in academia, where I can inspire and pave the way for non-traditional
students to pursue doctoral work and other professional opportunities that may seem
inaccessible,” Sails-Dunbar says. “I am grateful to have been welcomed into the academy,
and I am eager to ensure that it feels like home for future students from disadvantaged
One year into his program, Sails-Dunbar has already been accepted into USC’s Grace Jordan McFadden Professors Program and serves as a teaching assistant for a course focused on community health problems.
Most recently, he has been selected to join the Health Policy Research Scholars Program,
which is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and led by the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Designed for underrepresented doctoral students, this four-year program connects changemakers
from across the country. It provides funding support and leadership training to promising
researchers who plan to help build healthier and more equitable communities.
“Tremaine embodies the principles of interdisciplinarity and the application of social
sciences to public health programming and policy,” says HPEB associate professor Hala Ghattas, who serves as Sails-Dunbar’s doctoral advisor. “His approach engages organizations
outside of traditional health systems to improve health equity – aligning with the
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s efforts and demonstrating his commitment to lead
and be an agent of change in ensuring racial equity in health.”