HIV Prevention Researchers
Twenty-two years after the first AIDS cases were reported, the disease remains one of the major causes of death in the world. With no vaccine or cure in sight, a group of researchers at the University of Connecticut is focusing its attention on preventing the spread of the disease.
Working at the Center for Health/HIV Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), the researchers are intent on implementing projects that will slow the spread of HIV and AIDS among various at-risk populations, such as adolescents and people of color.
"We have to understand why people engage in risky behavior and then help them to change it," says Jeffrey Fisher, a professor of social psychology and the director of CHIP.
To reach that goal, Fisher and other CHIP researchers created a model of behavior change known as "information, motivation, behavioral skills" (IMB), and in doing so, made CHIP one of the world's premier centers for theory-based health behavior change research. As the name implies, the IMB model works by giving people the information, motivation, and skills necessary to change their behavior.
"Many interventions don't work because they only provide people with information," Fisher says. "Motivating and giving skills is costly and politically risky, but ultimately more effective.
The model can be used for all health behaviors, from HIV prevention to breast self-exams."
CHIP researchers use the IMB model and other proven theory-based approaches to HIV intervention with at-risk populations in real world settings. Their work has arguably reached thousands of people worldwide.
Truck drivers in India, for example, have benefited from work done by Deborah Cornman, one of two associate directors of CHIP and a psychology research associate, as she works with that population to get them to engage in safer behavior. Blair Johnson, a principal investigator at CHIP and professor of social psychology, does HIV prevention research in Romania. Seth Kalichman, a principal investigator at CHIP and professor of social psychology, is doing grant-funded work in Cape Town, South Africa, to implement a theory-based HIV risk reduction counseling intervention to be delivered in the context of South Africa's voluntary HIV counseling and testing program.
"The federal government is putting money into fighting AIDS internationally, with lots of initiatives being funded through the NIH," says Kalichman. "It makes our work more relevant."
Adds Fisher, "The international arena is where the bigger problems are, which is why U.S. agencies have made funding international work a huge priority."
While the researchers understand the importance of slowing the spread of HIV and AIDS overseas, they're also working to prevent the diseases from spreading locally. Michael Copenhaver, a principal investigator at CHIP and assistant research professor, does brief HIV interventions with injection drug users in New Haven's methadone clinics. Kerry Marsh, a principal investigator at CHIP and an associate professor of psychology, attempts to understand the relationship between implicit attitudes and risky sexual behaviors in HIV-positive populations. Johnson, in addition to his studies in Romania, studies the factors that make HIV prevention interventions effective by doing research synthesis or meta-analysis of the studies that other investigators have completed. Leslie Snyder, a principal investigator at CHIP and an associate professor of communication sciences, is conducting a meta-analysis of health communication campaigns to determine which are effective.
"CHIP's strength lies in its breadth, in that it goes from helping community-based to large organizations, and from working with students to international groups," Snyder says.
Provost John D. Petersen has cited CHIP as an example of capitalizing on an "area of choice", as outlined in the Academic Plan, and supporting it through a combination of institutional funding and funding from outside sources.
"Jeff and his team have put together a multi-disciplinary program in an area where we had research strength, that allowed principal investigators to seek and attain significant external funding," Petersen says.
"Eighteen months ago, we built facilities and provided seed money for the Center. The results have been stunning, with more than $11 million in new research money added since moving into the new facilities.
"CHIP is a model for what's possible at UConn," adds Petersen, "when we capitalize on the strength of our research enterprise, identify issues that relate to our state, our nation, and the world, and work collaboratively to turn a concept into reality."
CHIP now has more than 40 affiliates, 32 of whom are in departments other than psychology, which is where the Center is based and, until recently, where it was physically housed. In March, the Center moved to a new facility under the Ryan Refectory, which has space for more than 40 faculty and staff working on research that is run through the Center, as well as several key CHIP affiliates. Housing CHIP investigators in a single building enhances the opportunities for collaborative research.
The Center's leaders have reached out to researchers across the University, in order to provide an interdisciplinary nexus for UConn investigators with research interests in health behavior change and medical adherence.
The broadened focus reflects CHIP's shift from studying HIV prevention and intervention to studying interventions and prevention for all types of health issues. Some examples of the Center's non-HIV related work include Fisher's work with diabetes management; sociology professor Robert Broadhead's work to examine comparative international peer-driven interventions for intravenous drug users; and nutritional sciences professor Carol Lammi-Keefe's work on pre- and post-natal maternal nutrition. Through their expanded work, the directors hope to facilitate multi-disciplinary collaborations and new, major funding in these areas.
The Center's researchers have a proven track record when it comes to receiving funding. From 1999 to the present, CHIP faculty have been principal investigators on more than $17 million in externally funded grants for research dealing with various aspects of HIV and behavioral change.
Ultimately, CHIP's success isn't measured in dollars but in the number of people its researchers help.
"Health problems, particularly AIDS, cut across many social problems," says Kalichman. "AIDS is very broad and always changing. Anything we at CHIP can do to slow the spread of this disease and help people cope with other illnesses will make a difference to this and future generations."