Cross-Disciplinary Partnership to Focus Structural Lens on HIV Interventions

The program teams the CCAS Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Milken Institute SPH Department of Prevention and Community Health.
September 14, 2022
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By Kristen Mitchell

The George Washington University is launching an interdisciplinary PhD partnership this fall aimed at preparing the next generation of community-engaged researchers to develop and lead intersectional approaches to promote health equity and improve HIV prevention, treatment and care.

This new collaboration—Training Program in Approaches to Address Social-Structural Factors Related to HIV Intersectionality (TASHI)—brings together expertise from both the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) and the Milken Institute School of Public Health to focus a cutting-edge social, structural and community-driven lens on HIV. The program is led by Deanna Kerrigan, Milken Institute SPH professor of prevention and community health, and Lisa Bowleg, CCAS applied social psychology professor and founding director of GW’s Intersectionality Research Institute.

“Typical HIV interventions are focused on things that individuals can or should be doing, but there’s this larger context that constrains the ability of people to engage in health prevention behaviors,” Bowleg said. “There are these larger social structural factors that explain why HIV is so disproportionately concentrated in historically oppressed groups.”

Examining how factors like race, gender, legal residency status, addiction and access to transportation factor into HIV prevention, treatment and care brings to the forefront discourse on power and privilege. 

“The field is dominated by individual level factors and biomedical interventions,” Kerrigan said. “Those biomedical interventions are not going to work if people don’t have access, if people are struggling with broader structural issues that constrain their ability to participate and get care.”

This work is supported by an Institutional Research Training Grant (T32) from the ​​National Institute of Mental Health, a prestigious funding opportunity that provides cutting-edge research training opportunities for predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. This nearly $1 million award is the first T32 for both CCAS and Milken Institute SPH.

Over the past two years GW has received several prestigious federally-funded training grants. GW was awarded three T32 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award institutional research training grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration—the first to study cancer, the second to advance HIV research and the third in primary care research team development. The School of Engineering and Applied Science also received an award from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program to support the next generation of leaders and researchers in artificial intelligence.

Building a pipeline of scholars

Trainees will receive instruction and mentorship in social, structural, critical and intersectional theory; community-engaged research design and methods; multi-level intervention development and evaluation; and grant writing, publication and presentation skills. The training program is supported by 18 multi-disciplinary faculty conducting both global and domestic research on HIV, mental health, substance use and violence.

Students will have the opportunity to engage with community and government stakeholders in D.C. and beyond, including the District of Columbia Center for AIDS Research (DC CFAR), a multi-institutional effort housed at GW to promote and support research that contributes to ending the HIV epidemic in Washington, D.C., and beyond in partnership with government and community. 

“An experience like this is invaluable,” said Bowleg, who serves as co-director of the DC CFAR social and behavioral sciences core. “Being here in the center of policymaking provides trainees with unparalleled opportunities and access at the heart of everything when it comes to policymaking and practice and research.”

TASHI will support 10 PhD students over the next five years. The program will be open to students who have been accepted to the social and behavioral sciences PhD program from the Milken Institute SPH’s Department of Prevention and Community Health or clinical psychology or applied social psychology from the CCAS Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. More information about how to apply for the program can be found online.

The first cohort of TASHI students will begin their training this fall. They will take several core courses and participate in seminars to discuss social-structural perspectives on HIV. Arianne Malekzadeh, a second-year doctoral student in applied social psychology at CCAS, will join the first TASHI cohort. Before starting the PhD program, Malekzadeh spent more than five years at the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, conducting global health policy research. She was attracted to the TASHI program’s cross-cutting nature and space to research socio-structural interventions.

“Thinking more broadly about health equity, and then addressing it and promoting it in a thoughtful and comprehensive way because you have these multiple lenses, is really valuable,” she said. 

Simone Sawyer, a third-year doctoral student in social and behavioral sciences at the Milken Institute SPH, will also take part in the first TASHI cohort. Sawyer formerly served as community advisory board program coordinator on a Johns Hopkins study that was looking at the spread of HIV and syphilis among Black men who have sex with men in Baltimore city. That experience taught her the importance of building strong, equitable partnerships with the community.

Sawyer has continued to focus on community-based research approaches as part of her doctoral program and is eager to continue this work in a formalized setting, she said.

“I'm excited about the opportunity to collaborate with other professionals and researchers and practitioners and community members that are interested in this work…to continue to expand my thinking and learning in a dedicated space like this,” she said.