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Five questions with sexual health researcher Winnie Adebayo

Winnie Adebayo, PhD, an assistant professor of nursing at Penn State College of Nursing, researches how to encourage young people to take the initiative to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI).

“On one hand, when someone goes to the doctor to get screened or tested, they provide information, and the clinician gives them resources to help them manage their health,” Adebayo said. “On the other hand, if it turns out that you’re sick, you get treatment to get better. It’s the same thing with STIs. When people get tested, they get resources to reduce their risk. And at the same time, if they are sick, they are treated and get care so that they don’t transmit the infection to other people and further increase the burden.”

Adebayo focuses on self-initiation. Self-initiation is when a person decides to get tested without a health care provider telling them to do so. It involves the knowledge of testing, the knowledge of risk, the knowledge of available resources, but, more importantly, the self-efficacy to combine all these and take the step to be tested.

“With young people, they’re not sick, so they’re not going to the doctor every time,” Adebayo said.”They tend to go when it’s really, really bad. Because of that, we keep missing this huge group of people who are at risk or are infected because STIs can be asymptomatic. What can we do or put in place to make this almost a part of their lifestyle and make it easy enough or straightforward enough to the point that they get tested themselves?”

Adebayo recently completed her involvement in Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute‘s Early-Stage Investigator Training Program. The program, also known as KL2, invests in researchers who are early in their careers and building their research programs. The program protects the researcher’s time to work on a specific project.

A full interview with Adebayo is available in episode 10 of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Engage Podcast. Each episode educates listeners about the research process and how Penn State is improving our neighbors’ and communities’ health. A monthly community-focused newsletter further explores podcast topics. The April edition is now available here. Engage Podcast also is highlighted through a Linked In Spotlight page here.

What is one of your recent findings?

Adebayo: One of my first papers from the KL2 study talked about how college students would like communication related to STI testing. I thought it was interesting that people wanted messages that had stats that showed them that they are vulnerable, stats that ‘scared them,’ but still provided the resources for them to act on those feelings of fear and concern. Communication is not my background, but I think it will be an interesting place to run with and figure out how exactly to craft messaging for young people. Or to craft materials that would help them take action and be proactive in their sexual health.

What is something in your research that you were surprised by?

Adebayo: I ask questions about social media and dating. When I was an undergrad student, there was nothing like this. So, it’s interesting to just experience life through the eyes of people in this day and time. I would have never imagined that we’ll be at a time when you could have a layover at an airport and have a sexual partner, all in one to two hours, just because your dating app tells you that someone is interested one mile away from you. It’s a very interesting time.

One of the things that I asked the participants was to tell me about social media and dating, and also how testing is integrated into those conversations if it is, and how it goes. It will be interesting to see how people talk about having that conversation, how uncomfortable it is. It’s almost like social media and dating or meeting sexual partners online is the one time there isn’t confusion about whether sex is on the table or not. People establish very early if they want to have sex. You don’t have to woo the person, or buy them food, or talk for too long. How do they navigate that process of risk and testing?

What kind of community collaborations interest you?

Adebayo: I want to do more work for the community. I consider myself a community-based researcher because most of the questions that I ask require me to go into the community and spend time with the people I’m trying to understand. Honestly, I never have enough community-based resources or community-based partnerships.

An example is I do a lot of qualitative work. That’s where my strength is. And honestly, I cannot tell you how many times after my interviews that students are like, ‘thank you so much.’ Or the person says, ‘Thank you. This was an interview for a study, but I have learned so much,’ or ‘I would do things differently,’ or ‘I’m going to get tested tomorrow based on all that we’ve talked about today.’ And it’s almost like I can’t account for those things in my study all the time, but I go to bed knowing that somebody’s life is better just from spending time with me. I don’t know that I’m ever going to be that researcher who crunches numbers, which is not a bad thing, but I don’t know that it would ever be me. So, I will never have enough community collaborators. I want as many as possible, to answer questions and solve problems that are here and now. Not some abstract, crazy idea but an actual need that by the time we are done with a project, people walk away experiencing something better.

How about collaboration within the University?

Adebayo: My goodness, there’s so much for us to do together. It’s amazing. Recently in Penn State News, they showcased a researcher working on a testing device for people to check HIV viral loads at home. Weihua Guan is an electrical engineer. And I was just blown away by the work that his group is doing. And the whole time, I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what we could do!’ I ended up reaching out to the researcher. He’s amazing. And we had a chat about his work. But I want to work with more people who have no idea what I do. People are just amazing at what they do, and we could come together and make miracles happen.

What’s a future project you want to do?

Adebayo: One of the things that I hope that we do in the future is in communication and messaging. I think that people in graphic design or storytelling, or drama will be great with some health care initiatives that will better reach the public. We know that people love movies. We know people love stories. Advertising companies spend a lot of money to tell stories in 15 to 20 seconds and get people to buy their products. We could do that, too, in health care and really tap into the knowledge, skills and experiences of people not in health care-related fields. I want to have more collaborations with people who are not in health care—people who do not have a health care background and what they can bring to the table: Communication, theater, music, you name it. There’s just so much that we could do by learning from each other and trying to advance science to make people healthier.

About Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute provides tools, services and training to make health research more efficient at Penn State. It is an advocate for translational science at the University and is a bridge between basic scientists and clinical researchers. The institute encourages collaboration to discover new treatments, medical procedures and ways to diagnose disease. Learn more at Subscribe to its newsletters here.

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