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Arnold School of Public Health

Students gain hands-on experience researching HIV intervention/prevention and other intersecting areas of interest

February 14, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

As the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics continues to grow its faculty expertise in infectious diseases, students at all levels are benefiting from the increased mentorship and research opportunities. Monique Brown, an assistant professor who joined the Arnold School in 2018, has expertise in an array of areas that she addresses both separately and as intersecting areas. Her work in HIV intervention and prevention, childhood trauma, social and behavioral mental health, and aging has provided students with opportunities to engage in impactful public health research.

Like Brown, who grew up amidst the emergence of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, Amandeep Kaur witnessed the prevalence of preventable health conditions in the village where she grew up in India – challenges that she says are still rampant today. “India as a developing country lacks the availability and accessibility of resources,” says Kaur, who studied public health dentistry as an undergraduate to learn how to help relieve human suffering. “Establishing an effective public health system has always been my dream for the nation.”  

Kaur’s education from her bachelor’s program helped her recognize the attention needed to address communicable diseases such as HIV as global health issues, so she moved to the United States to complete a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology at East Tennessee State University. She applied to the Arnold School’s Ph.D. in Epidemiology program to enhance her specialized skills and in-depth knowledge, particularly in understanding infectious diseases, their patterns and prevention strategies.

Using the Arnold School’s faculty directory to learn about researchers’ interests that might match her own, Kaur found Brown and approached her about contributing to her National Institute of Mental Health-funded project aimed at improving the health of older adults living with HIV. Together, along with Titilayo James, they have nearly completed Phase 1 of the project – conducting qualitative interviews with older adults living with HIV who have a history of childhood sexual trauma. Their goal is to understand how these adults are coping with their past trauma as well as whether it impacts their adherence to antiretroviral therapy – a key component of viral suppression and daily functioning.

Kaur is also working with Brown on a project focusing on antiretroviral adherence and coping/self-efficacy among individuals with HIV, and she is gaining experience through the South Carolina SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality (where Brown is a faculty affiliate). Kaur’s long-term plans include working as a research scientist, or perhaps in academia, to help develop intervention programs and research addressing mental health and adverse childhood experiences among individuals with HIV.

Yuhang Qian, currently a master’s student (epidemiology) at Johns Hopkins University, met Brown when he was an exchange student from Nanjing Medical University in China who was visiting UofSC for research training. Like Kaur, Qian used the faculty directory to find researchers with similar interests. He discovered Brown’s work with HIV and reached out to her.

Brown served as Qian’s primary mentor during his visit, and the two share an interest in infectious diseases. Together, they worked on a project examining the related age and sex disparities in the link between sexual trauma, depressive symptoms and adherence to antiretroviral therapy among people living with HIV in South Carolina. Qian presented their findings at the Joint Symposium of Nanjing Medical University and University of South Carolina. Brown also presented this research at the AIDS Impact Conference in London, and the team wrote a paper on the study, which is currently under review.  

“Through reading related literature, I recognized the importance of addressing trauma and mental health issues among people living with HIV to improve HIV treatment outcomes,” says Qian. “The undergraduate training program enhanced my research and scientific literature writing skills, and I'm grateful to Dr. Brown.”

Qian is already applying the skills he learned through his work with Brown to his graduate studies. Long-term, he is committed to ending the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV as well as eliminating the disease itself.

A Beaufort, South Carolina native who comes from a long line of Gamecocks, Julia (Stewart) Trask had the unique opportunity of participating in academic research as a high school student at the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics and knew that she wanted to continue engaging in research as an undergraduate. Trask used the UofSC research database and found a paper Brown had written about the association between intimate partner violence and preventive health screenings among women and knew she wanted to work with her.

Now Brown is mentoring the Honors College student on a project on gender disparities and HIV disclosure. Trask received funding for the study through a Magellan Scholar grant and recently submitted an abstract on it for the AIDS 2020 Conference.

“I had no idea how clueless I was about a professional research experience until I began working with Dr. Brown, especially when it came to working in the epidemiology and biostatistics department because I had previously only done bench lab research,” Trask says. “She has been such an amazing mentor and has been so patient with me and so helpful with any question I may have. It’s been really wonderful having someone who is so informed to help guide me through the entire research process.”

Learning more about how the stigma toward sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV, can negatively affect mental health and impact many aspects of an individual’s life has inspired Trask to become more passionate about fighting against stigma on behalf of people living with incurable STDs. After her 2021 graduation, she would like to work for a nonprofit or research group to gain some additional experience, preferably in women’s health, before returning to school for her medical degree.


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