Health behavior doctoral graduate, Yale postdoctoral research fellow is dedicated to improving health of adolescents, emerging adults

Tamara Taggart
Tamara Taggart

While a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tamara Taggart was the lead author on a study indicating that a theater education intervention increased adolescents’ awareness of HIV. She received a Future Faculty Fellowship from the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence and was selected for the UNC-NIH AIDS and STD Training Program.

Before receiving her Ph.D. in health behavior from UNC-Chapel Hill, she had received her bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and her master of public health degree from Columbia University. Taggart is now a postdoctoral research fellow with the Yale University Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS.

In her answers below, Taggart shares her commitment to developing “transformative multilevel interventions and policies to improve the health of adolescents and emerging adults,” as well as fond memories of her supportive community at Carolina.

In reflecting back on your years as a graduate student at Carolina, what experiences did you value the most here at UNC-Chapel Hill?

I had so many wonderful experiences at Carolina that it is hard to pick just one or a few. Everyone at UNC is so open to meeting, sharing ideas and networking with each other that it is easy to build your community. Collectively, the experiences I value the most are those that created a sense of learning, support and camaraderie between myself and other scholars in the community. These included: the high-caliber special guests and speakers brought to campus, gathering at a professor’s house for a holiday social, Writing Wednesdays at GSC [The Graduate School’s Graduate Student Center], coffee and cookies at HSL [Health Sciences Library] during finals, and seeing Alvin Ailey each year at Memorial Hall. Beyond these specific experiences, I am most grateful for the lasting friendships I made with other students and scholars in my department and at UNC in general.

Do you have advice or thoughts to share with current UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students?

This may sound cliché, but enjoy your time there. Amidst all of the courses, research and other responsibilities, prioritize enjoying yourself. Some of my fondest memories include day trips to the beach, weekends in Asheville, racing with my local running group (Fleet Feet Carrboro) and rushing Franklin Street after a men’s basketball win. These experiences are just as important as the academics, and will make your time at Carolina better. On a more personal note, as I am now entering a new phase in my postgraduate career, know and trust in the training you have and will receive. UNC is such a strong academic institution that when you graduate, you will be positioned and prepared to pursue a host of opportunities.

Are there any specific examples of support – fellowships, mentoring, other – that helped you advance your academic and professional goals?

I was in the Department of Health Behavior (formerly health behavior and health education) and was funded through the department as both a teaching and research assistant. The chair and doctoral program director while I was there were Jo Anne Earp and Susan Ennett, respectively. Both went above and beyond to make sure funding opportunities in the department and at UNC in general were made available to students. I also made use of the department’s Jo Anne Earp Travel Scholarship for conference travel and to take additional coursework at other institutions. For fellowships, toward the end of my third year, I received the UNC-NIH AIDS and STD Training Program predoctoral fellowship supported by NIAID [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]. This fellowship supported me during my dissertation and provided funds for supplies and travel. This is a fantastic mechanism, as I received training and mentorship from William (Bill) Miller and support for my dissertation. My department also provided support and guidance as I applied for and received fellowships and scholarships from the UNC Future Faculty program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Duke University and the Brocher Foundation.

The mentoring I received (and continue to receive) from UNC faculty has been superb. Too many to name here, but as a doctoral student I worked very closely with Alexandra Lightfoot, Laura Linnan, Wizdom Powell and Malika Roman Isler. These experiences led to several research and teaching opportunities and, more importantly, shaped the way I view public health and the impact my work should have on the communities I serve.

What should people know about your work?

Currently, I am a second-year postdoctoral research fellow at Yale University Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, conducting two NIH-funded pilot studies. One uses an activity space approach to understand the influence neighborhood factors, social networks and experiences of racial discrimination have on black emerging adult men’s HIV risk behaviors and substance use. The other study uses community-based participatory research methods to examine multilevel factors associated with pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) uptake among black and Latino adolescents.

More broadly, my research integrates techniques, theories and concepts from epidemiology, psychology and sociology to examine the ways in which sociocontextual factors (such as neighborhoods and social networks) and cultural identity factors (such as religiosity, racial identity and masculinity) influence health behaviors among racial/ethnic minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged adolescents and emerging adults. I explore these factors by: examining the sociocontextual and cultural determinants of sexual health and substance use, and then developing and implementing interventions to reduce HIV risk and substance abuse among these populations. My work also explores the combined effects of gender, race/ethnicity and other cultural identities on health risk behaviors and outcomes.

Across the life course, black males experience a disproportionate amount of racial discrimination (such as race-related stress and racial profiling), which may serve as a chronic stressor leading to the endorsement of more harmful coping strategies including increased substance use. While there is an established association between experiences of racial discrimination and health, the role of context remains unclear. The ultimate goal of my program of research is to reduce health disparities by working with communities of color to develop transformative multilevel interventions and policies to improve the health of adolescents and emerging adults.

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