Mutual Admiration Inspires LGBT-Focused HIV Researchers at UNC

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Amidst the deluge of HIV research being published in journals and presented at scientific meetings nearly every day, it can be easy to forget that science is -- despite its cold, dispassionate, data-centric approach -- a very human endeavor. Each achievement we celebrate in the fight against HIV is a human success, and each study we embark on to further that fight is a remarkable collaboration between a team of people united by an inspiring common goal.

While the end result of most HIV research comes in the form of a dense scientific paper, the actual process of executing a study is often a much more colorful affair. The teams of health professionals at the heart of these studies often provide one another with support, respect, and trust -- and that in turn motivates each person even further.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a small group of researchers led by Tonia Poteat, Ph.D., M.P.H., PA-C, has begun to seek answers to an interesting question: How do stigma and other stressors lead to comorbidities among transgender women living with HIV? The study is fueled by a National Institutes of Health grant -- and by the closeness of the team Poteat has assembled to execute it.

Meanwhile, Poteat continues to work on research she began during her time at Johns Hopkins University, where she was an assistant professor from 2012 until 2018. Among those projects is a study exploring HIV risk among trans-attracted men -- men who partner with transgender women.

We asked a few of the team members working on these studies -- Poteat herself, research coordinator Jenny Williams, and postdoctoral fellow Darius Scott -- to share their thoughts on their work, as well as on one another, as they pursue their research.

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Jenny Williams, Research Coordinator

Jenny Williams is the research coordinator for the NIH-funded transgender health study led by Poteat. As the study moves through its initial planning and approval stages, Williams's work is centered around cementing the study protocol, organizing a community advisory board of trans women, and preparing to recruit participants.

Poteat and Williams only began working together in late 2018, but the two quickly developed a strong rapport.

"What really impressed me about Jenny is her personality," Poteat said. "She's very friendly, warm and engaging, and also very open."

"For all of us doing this work, we have to be open to learning from people who engage in research -- from our colleagues, from community members that are engaged in the research endeavor -- and be open to change," Poteat added. "I see that in Jenny. I also see a strong commitment to social justice and the desire to make a difference."

Williams, meanwhile, feels inspired to work with Poteat. "Tonia is one of those rare people that's extremely smart, but also extremely nice," she said. "You don't find that very often. She's also very good about including people at every level on the project and really respecting the ideas of people from all different backgrounds, and I think that makes her work stronger. ... She's really in tune with what it's like to be a care provider, and what it's like to be a researcher."

"The other thing that I really appreciate about her," Williams continued, "is that she stays very, very focused on social justice, on making lives better and holding people accountable for treating people the way they deserve to be treated. But she's able to work in a way that could change clinical practice, too. I think that is a very important combination."

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Darius Scott, Postdoctoral Fellow

Darius Scott is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine; he is being mentored by Poteat. Though Scott won funding of his own to examine HIV among black men who have sex with men (MSM) in rural parts of the southern U.S., he also assists Poteat in data analysis on her Johns Hopkins study regarding trans-attracted men.

"I would say he's a quiet storm," Poteat said of Scott. "He's easy, calm, no ruffle -- a person who gets a lot done, so he's very easy to work with, very passionate about things and also very even-keeled."

Scott's respect for Poteat runs deep. "She's been an activist, she's been a care provider, and now she's also doing research, and she's worked in America," he said. "She has a very comprehensive and understanding view of the crisis as it has unfolded for decades."

But beyond her diverse experience, it's clear that Scott holds great admiration for how Poteat treats others, regardless of their seniority. "One thing that surprised me is just how relatable she is," Scott admitted. "I know I can speak with her about any sort of issue I'm having in the field -- or with an interviewee, or with the study I'm doing -- and she'll engage with me as a person. That's really important for breaking through the barriers that can be between someone who is an established professor and someone like me, who's still making my way up."

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United by a Greater Mission

For Williams, Poteat's new study on transgender women is a compelling chance to combat stigma and improve services among a community with a critical need. "There's a real opportunity to shine a light on how much of an impact this disease is having on the trans community, and I think that's an extremely important thing to come out of this project," she said. "I hope that we can work to publish on that -- but also to submit the results of the project broadly, so that more than just researchers could use it."

Similarly, Scott's work on HIV among black MSM in the South is part of an effort to draw attention -- and action -- where it has long been lacking. "I think the public doesn't understand that for some communities, like black gay men, the crisis is still unfolding," he said. "It's not been overcome, and we're not on the mend. Things are getting worse. With work like that done by Tonia, hopefully people will at least know that better, and be able to confront the issue head on."

Poteat grew thoughtful as she considered the driving forces behind her current research. "There was a promise made in the State of the Union address [by President Donald J. Trump on Feb. 5, 2019] that there would be an effort to end the epidemic within the next 10 years," she said. "I would love to see that happen -- to see the financial commitment to addressing the problems that we know we have, in terms of barriers to engaging in HIV care and prevention -- and realize an actual end to new infections. And easy, affordable access to care for people who are living with HIV."

"If my work can contribute to that in some way, I am happy for it to do so," Poteat continued. "I'm hoping that this study with transgender women will provide some information on how the way we treat people gets under their skin and impacts their health, and lead us to be a truly kinder and more compassionate set of people."