In early 2000s a young Ailton “Santo” Coleman enthusiastically joined the U.S. Peace Corps, agreeing to serve as an education volunteer in the Republic of Kiribati, an island nation of 32 atolls in the Central Pacific Ocean so remote that some people lacked running water and electricity. Prior to his assignment, Coleman had told his interviewer that he wanted “the remote experience and not the apartment experience,” and the interviewer said, “We’ve got the perfect place for you.”
“They sent me to Kiribati,” says Coleman. In fact, his specific island, Butaritari, was so inaccessible that Coleman didn’t leave during his two years of service. “When I was in-country, there were only two airplanes in the entire country and they only could have 4 to 6 people on board including the pilot, so you had to weigh yourself so they could know how much weight was on the plane before it took o ,” recalls Coleman.
Out of the 32 volunteers who began service with him, only 16 remained — including Coleman — at the end. In 2008, the Peace Corps determined that Kiribati was too remote to ensure the safety of the volunteers and closed the program in that nation.
Now an assistant professor of health sciences at James Madison University, Coleman hopes at some point to return to Kiribati, where he made numerous lifelong friends. “They are the friendliest and most hospitable people I have ever met,” he says.
His experiences there changed his career trajectory.
“Kiribati was where I became passionate about public health,” Coleman says, explaining that with bachelor’s degrees in political science and Spanish at age 21, he had planned to obtain a law degree and become an international copyright lawyer.
“I thought that I was going to end up working for [a company] like Bad Boy Entertainment doing copyright law in South America.” But a friend suggested that he “take time to mature a little bit before going to law school.”
Coleman took his friend’s advice and joined the Peace Corps. He says he became interested in public health while serving in Kiribati a er his “host mother,” who was pregnant with twins, died during childbirth along with her babies “because there were no doctors on the island.”
After that, Coleman says he started noticing grievous health problems such as a high number of amputees due to diabetes. “ at’s when I realized that so much of the pain that I saw in Kiribati could have been prevented by health education, and that’s when I decided I wanted to go into public health.” He went on to earn a doctorate in public health, social and behavioral science from the University of Connecticut a er receiving his master’s degree in public health, public health policy and management from the University of Arizona.
In 2015, he returned to Peace Corps service in the Republic of El Salvador in yet another remote area, the mountainous region of Chalatenango as an evaluator of a school-based suicide prevention program. However, he and the other volunteers were evacuated from the country in 2016 due to rising gang violence. Another highlight of Coleman’s career, though a bit less adventurous, was his postdoc position as a program evaluator/analyst at the U.S. Army Public Health Center in Edgewood, Maryland, which Coleman says was critical to his research. “If you come up with a program, how do you evaluate it to show that it is successful and how do you replicate it?” He says that Army postdoc position was ideal because of the largescale nature of its practical applications.
Dr. David Owusu-Ansah, a history professor and associate provost for diversity at James Madison University, nominated Coleman to be a 2022 Emerging Scholar, citing his training in three branches of science and his three federal fellowships. “As a men’s health scholar, Dr. Coleman is dedicated to understanding the factors that contribute to early mortality among AfricanAmerican men and boys , ” Owusu-Ansah wrote in his nomination , pointing out that Coleman has served “as a source of inspiration to the next generation of volunteers.”
For Coleman, merging his scholarship with service is critical.
“I believe that our work should have an impact on our communities,” he says. “We can use physical activity as a way to address these higher disparities in our communities related to physical and mental health. So my next step is creating community-based programs that use the bonds between fathers and sons, regardless of race but particularly for African Americans to create activities that would help them have better health outcomes — both the fathers and the sons.”