Jennifer Velloza

PhD student, Epidemiology
Staten Island, NY

How did you discover public health?

When I was an undergrad at Columbia, I majored in Neuroscience and Behavior, and I was on track to go to medical school. I did a service trip to Honduras to deliver antibiotics and, while it was great to show up with a suitcase filled with medicine, it felt like a Band-Aid solution. I wanted to find ways to prevent the health outcomes I was seeing.

What else helped to shape your understanding of public health?

My first job out of college, I was working in the Bronx on HIV prevention and testing programs. We were doing HIV testing in pharmacies and out of vans, and we would try to link people to care at Jacobi Medical Center. I admired the population focus to the work and enjoyed the data and study management tasks more than being on the hospital floor. Later, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) to get my MPH.

What did you focus on for your master's ?

I earned my MPH in the Health Behavior and Health Education department and worked predominantly with researchers at FHI 360, a nonprofit development organization that supports locally driven solutions. I focused on designing health behavior interventions and understanding behavior change theory.

What aspect of behavior change are you most passionate about?

I think key stakeholder engagement is a really important component of behavior change interventions. I’m an outsider in a lot of the communities that I work with and what I learn in the classroom can only go so far. I want to make sure that my research and interventions are relevant to the communities I serve.

What was your first foray into global health?

At FHI 360, I worked on a mobile phone sexual and reproductive health intervention for young adults in Rwanda and Tanzania. That work broadened my scope beyond domestic HIV research and informed a lot of what I’m doing now for my dissertation.

Tell us about your dissertation.

It bridges global mental health and HIV prevention for women. I’m looking at psychosocial factors that might influence pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, use among young women in sub-Saharan Africa. Previous research has shown is that it’s hard to take PrEP every day. Not only is it difficult to remember and hard to store, but there’s a lot of stigma around taking a pill for HIV prevention, because people think the pills are for HIV treatment. There’s also a high burden of substance use, gender-based violence, depression and unintended pregnancy in these high-risk populations. I’m interested in understanding how psychosocial risk factors might influence HIV prevention behaviors like taking PrEP regularly.

How does the Remak Scholarship apply to this work?

One of my dissertation aims involves qualitative data collection and analysis with young women participating in a PrEP trial in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I was very fortunate to receive the Remak Scholarship to support my travel to Cape Town and Johannesburg, in South Africa, last summer. The award enabled me to visit the adolescent friendly health care clinics, meet the study participants, and assist with qualitative data collection and analysis at the study sites.

And the Global Opportunities (GO) Health Fellowship?

I received a GO Health Fellowship to conduct primary data collection for another dissertation aim on the comprehension and acceptability of a depression screening tool in Thika, Kenya. This research will hopefully lead to recommendations about depression screening among pregnant and postpartum women, in the context of a PrEP delivery clinic.

What are the potential public health implications of your dissertation work?

At the end of all of this, I’d like to say something about integrating HIV prevention services with a broader array of mental health services for women. We are, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, trying to scale up delivery of PrEP. This is a great opportunity to get women into the health care system and to assess their other health needs.

What motivates you about global public health?

I feel incredibly passionate about promoting the sexual health and reproductive rights of women worldwide. It’s rewarding to feel like I could have a small part in giving women access to female-initiated HIV prevention strategies. 

Why did you choose the UW?

I wanted to develop my quantitative skills and to learn more about intervention design and evaluation. When I was looking at programs in epidemiology, my previous mentors had such great connections with investigators here at the UW. SPH was a great fit for the areas of research focus, the types of ongoing HIV prevention and treatment projects, and the skills I would gain from the epidemiology methods courses.

What were you doing when you applied?

I was working for Doctors Without Borders in Swaziland at the time. I was based in a rural area of the country, as a study manager for a project ensuring that pregnant women were being tested for HIV and linked to antiretroviral therapy treatment.

What recommendations do you have for other students?

Apply for as many funding and conference opportunities as you can. It’s a really good experience in crafting your ideas, and having some deadlines has forced me to develop dissertation ideas and think about how I want to frame my research. Getting your research ideas out there is very important.

Also, network with other students and faculty. Before I applied for a F31 postdoctoral fellowship, I received so much wonderful input from students who had received it before me.

What are your future goals?

First, I look forward to finishing my PhD. After that, I hope to stay in academia as an investigator and teacher. I’ll likely apply for a postdoctoral position and then try to find opportunities to transition into a faculty position. I’ve had such great mentorship throughout my career and I really enjoy mentoring others. I hope to make that a big part of my career as an independent researcher.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to go trail running at Cougar Mountain, and usually try to run about 25 miles a week in the Arboretum or at Green Lake. I’m also learning to backcountry ski this winter, which has been an exciting adventure.

What do you like most about Seattle?

Seattle is just the perfect size for a city. You have so many benefits of a big city, but you can still bump into your friends when you go to a restaurant or bar. But my favorite part of Seattle is probably how close it is to the mountains — it’s amazing that I can grab a latte at a nearby coffee shop, drive a few hours to hike, ski tour or snowshoe on a volcano, and then make it back in time for dinner downtown.

Treating Mind and Body - feature story 

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