Over the course of the summer, I had the opportunity to be immersed as a research assistant for the Program on Sexuality, Technology, and Action Research (PSTAR). PSTAR, directed by Dr. José Bauermeister and housed within the School of Nursing, manages several different research and intervention studies related to the sexual health and wellbeing of sexual and gender minorities.
As the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring (PURM) student assigned to PSTAR, I was able to participate and contribute to several ongoing projects. One study that I worked on focused on the development of new biomedical prevention methods that could be used to deliver pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is currently available only in pill form, which may be expensive and create difficulties in access and adherence for key groups at risk for HIV. The biological and pharmaceutical aspects of these new PrEP products are being studied by different teams across the country. At PSTAR, we are researching the behavioral components of these products in order to test the feasibility and acceptability of using HIV preventing drugs within a condom, gel/lube, insert, suppository, or enema to be used before a sexual encounter. In order to understand participants’ reactions and feelings toward the product, I transcribed, coded, and summarized interviews. The information gathered is useful in gauging the acceptability and ultimately success of the design of future clinical trials and the end-product.
I also contributed to the analysis of an online HIV intervention called myDEx, short for My Desires and Expectations. This mHealth trial focused on creating an online app/website to give sexual health and risk reduction information to young men who have sex with men, the group experiencing the greatest increase in HIV infections in the US. I was responsible for computing participants’ engagement in the app, as measured by each user’s time and use of different sections and activities within myDEx. After working through a few large spreadsheets, some interesting patterns emerged that could help create a more effective intervention system in the future. Moving forward, our online intervention can be better designed to encourage safer sex practices and reduce the transmission of HIV.
While these two studies filled most of time this summer, I also was able to work on a few other projects focused on LGBT health. Through these experiences, I have gained not just a deeper understanding of the valuable research going on at PSTAR, but also about how research is done and the many different layers that can go into one study. I look forward to continuing to work at PSTAR throughout the school year.