I have been privileged to work on a hugely satisfying and rewarding practicum with the Gillings Zambia Hub. It is qualitative research to assess the acceptability and feasibility of engaging male partners and other family members to support HIV-positive mothers to practice the recommended Infant feeding practices and Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) adherence.

My drive and interest in HIV research and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission stem from seeing the hardship faced by people living with HIV. Hence, I was glad for the opportunity to work on a subject matter I find interesting and relevant, so I have had no problem finding my footing or staying motivated, especially with the practicum being a virtual one.

For the project, we use the Trials of Improved Practices (TIPs), a formative participatory research technique developed by the Manoff group to pretest and improve the recommended practices on a small scale before introducing them broadly. Trained interviewers discuss current feeding practices and ART adherence with study participants in individual interviews. In addition, study participants are encouraged to identify home supporters. Subsequently, there is counseling on the recommended practices, and with the interviewer’s help, each study participant decides on specific practices to be adopted over a trial period. In follow-up meetings, the interviewer asks questions to assess the uptake of the recommended practices. By taking this approach, we draw from the experience of the study participants, who are members of our target population, to pilot test our recommendations. This approach enables us to recognize and determine the practicability or limitations of recommended infant feeding practices in the context of the local communities. Furthermore, using TIPs makes it possible to identify possible challenges that might impact the uptake of our proposed recommendations, provide solutions to these challenges, eliminate or modify practices that are not feasible.

As an intern, I support the team by reviewing the transcripts of the focused interviews and providing feedback. I also use Ona to assess and summarize the data and ATLAS.ti for qualitative data analysis. In addition, I am working on a secondary analysis of already coded data to determine the role of social support systems and couples’ joint decision-making in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Through my interactions with the research team, I am learning to be perceptive of cultural differences, be humble and respectful while giving feedback, and be open to responses that challenge my worldview and perspective. The opportunity to work on a diverse team has also afforded me a better appreciation of the interaction between individual social identities and power dynamics in a research ecosystem.

Sometimes, things do not go according to plan. A little over a month ago, the project had a slight hiccup when the Zambian government had to suspend all hospital-based research because of another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collection had to stop temporarily, affecting our deadlines for specific points in the study. Thankfully, the COVID-19 cases are dwindling, the suspension was lifted a week ago, and data collection has commenced again. Overall, I would say that this summer has been productive and a lot of fun. Through meeting other students,  I expanded my Gillings community. I also explored more of North Carolina. Most of all, I am thankful for a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow my skills through the Gillings Zambia Hub. Now, my only grudge is the swift passage of time because it feels like I started the practicum a day ago, yet it’s been three months and more. Indeed, time flies.

While spending a summer day at Ft. Macon State Park, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of these lovely seagulls.