Steve Charles—Keon Gilbert ’01 was three weeks into classes for his doctorate in public health at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004 when he experienced… well, it’s better the way he tells it:

“I had this ‘aha’ moment. I realized, this is exactly what I want to do—what we’re talking about in class, what people in public health do. This is exactly IT!”

Five years later, Keon returned to the Wabash campus last Friday to deliver the biology department’s first Cole Lecture Series of the year, "The Souls of Black Men: A Multi-Method Approach to Understanding Social Capital and the Health of Black Men."

Dr. Gilbert told faculty and students about Brother’s Keeper, his post-doctoral research and one of several community-based research projects he is involved with. Funded by the National Centers for Minority Health Disparities and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the project is working with four black churches to explore whether sermon, scripture, prayer, and song in those churches affects the outcomes of cardiovascular disease in African American men, a population which has the highest mortality rate from cardiovascular disease in the nation. 

The study is also creating a lay-health advisor intervention to build a social support network of men to encourage African American men to seek help in managing and controlling heart disease.

The community-based research model is a perfect fit for Keon. Unlike randomized sampling or other “drive-by research,” community-based research sees the people being studied and their communities as partners in the work and seeks to improve their quality of life—it’s an approach that embraces research, education, and action.

Listening to him speak, I marveled at how Keon’s many interests when he was a student at Wabash have converged in his vocation. So at an afternoon reception in his honor in Hays Science Hall, I asked him to reflect on what he calls “a very non-traditional path” to his calling.

Like many Wabash biology majors, Keon had planned to become a medical doctor. It was the dream of his childhood, and in his junior year of high school, he’d even assisted in supervised medical research, of sorts, studying disparities in the treatment of African American amputees when compared to white patients. When he looks back on it now, he realizes the seed of his public health work were planted even then.

In his junior year at Wabash, Keon faced a decision that would prove crucial to his calling—whether to study abroad in Australia for the semester, or stay on campus to prepare for MCATs and focus on his GPA for medical school. He credits Professor David Polley for the advice that not only enriched his college education, but led him eventually to public health.

“Dr. Polley said that he thought if I didn’t go, I might regret it the rest of my life,” Keon told me.
We had talked with Keon later that year for an article in Wabash Magazine. Here’s what he had to say about the experience in 2001:

“I spent last year in Australia, where the indigenous population was only given citizenship in 1967; they are still, in many ways, second-class citizens, as African Americans were in the 1960s in America. That gave me new appreciation for why it’s so important for me to be politically and socially active—to understand ourselves and project that to others, so that they will understand and respect who we are. You can’t take that for granted.”

That same year, Keon had another one of those “aha” moments as he finished his Wabash degree.
“I began to struggle with the question of whether medicine was the right path for me. But I didn’t know what else to do. Ever since I was five years old, I’d wanted to be a doctor. I’d structured my life around that.

“But with my experience in Australia, and being involved in some controversies here at Wabash, I realized that I was interested in systems, in bureaucracies, and how they can be changed. I still felt it was important to treat people for disease, but I began to understand that I was most interested in knowing how and why people got sick, particularly how and why certain diseases—like heart attack and stroke—the faces of those diseases are the faces of black people.”

Later that year, Keon made a rare decision for a biology major—to pursue a joint master’s degree in African American studies and public affairs.
“I came from a background in biology, and the other candidates were likely all from the arts or cultural studies,” Keon said. He recalled the ways his professors and advisors, including professors Warren Rosenberg and Peter Frederick, as well as Visiting Professor of History Lori Pierce, encouraged him.

“They said that I had a certain set of skills I’d gained as a bio major—being  able think critically and analytically, to write that way as well—and that I needed to play up those strengths.”

Keon was not only accepted at both Indiana University and Columbia; he became the first to graduate from IU with such a degree.

But once he got it, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. His options seemed few, and the most obvious—pursuing a PhD in African American studies—didn’t satisfy his desire to make changes in the system or intervene to improve people’s health.

A chance encounter with a recent arrival at IU clarified his path.

“I was in my last year of my master’s program, sitting at a brunch sponsored by one of the chancellors, and a new faculty member, an African American woman in the public health field, came to sit at the table. She asked me what I was interested in, and I told her I was interested in rural African American health issues. She was amazed to find an African American man interested in health issues, and when she found out I was uncertain about what I was going to next, she urged me to consider public health. Listening to my interests, she asked me, almost in disbelief, why I hadn’t considered public health in the first place.”

After reading about the program at the University of Pittsburgh, Keon asked himself the same question. That eureka moment and the realization that “this is it” followed soon after he joined the program. Now, having completed his DrPH at Pittsburgh, Keon also has earned a two-year Kellogg Health Fellowship, which seeks to develop leaders in “the effort to reduce and eliminate health disparities and to secure equal access to the conditions and services essential for achieving healthy communities.”

On Friday, Keon smiled as he told one student, “For the first time in my life, I’m actually finished with school.” Now he’ll be teaching others, continuing to learn about the causes of disease and of disparities within the health care system, and seeking ways to change and improve that system and the quality of people’s lives. 

“More and more I see how my experiences at Wabash, in and out of the classroom, and my experiences at IU and at the University of Pittsburgh are finally coming together,” Keon said. “This is it. This is my moment.”