Ashleigh LoVette - BSHS PhD

It’s summertime in Providence but it’s winter in South Africa. Ashleigh LoVette, doctoral student in behavioral and social health sciences, spent her months off from classes hard at work in Cape Town.

Hard work which is desperately needed when 6.2 million South Africans are HIV positive—more than in any other country in the world. Progress is being made, with more than 2.4 million HIV-infected South African adults and 156,000 children now in treatment, but the epidemic continues to grow. Ashleigh’s work focused on a qualitative study investigating young people’s attitudes toward pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a daily pill regimen that can prevent HIV-negative individuals from becoming infected. She also wanted to understand the larger context of adolescent decision making in the face of HIV and AIDS.

“A good amount of my time was spent in the project office, which is located within Groote Schuur, an academic research hospital affiliated with the University of Cape Town. Participant recruitment and interviews were completed at the hospital and within the community of Khayelitsha. Outside of interviews, additional time was spent in Khayelitsha to gain more fieldwork experience.”

In the Khayelitsha township, home to over 400,000, about half the people live in shacks. Transportation, sanitation, and infrastructure are poor; crime rates are high, and the poverty is staggering. 

“When I first arrived, I attempted to plan and schedule, wanting to experience as much as possible, during my time. As time went on, I learned to wake up in the morning and just see what the day would bring. Would the participant show up? Will the meeting still be scheduled? I was not always sure, but this uncertainty was all part of the experience of finding strategies to conduct community-based field research with youth.”

In South Africa, Ashleigh joined Brown University School of Public Health Professors Abigail Harrison and Caroline Kuo, veteran community-based field researchers. These advisors, along with faculty back in Providence, provided guidance and support to this young researcher getting her first taste of what it’s like to maintain an international research portfolio.

“From managing a research team from afar, to developing and maintaining long-term collaborative research relationshipsto dealing with particular ethical issues, to learning a new language and cultural norms, the challenges are significant. However, this experience abroad helped me to see that although there are numerous challenges, there are also many rewards. For someone who hopes to cultivate a career including international research, experiences like these are essential for both professional and personal development.”

One of the highlights of Ashleigh’s trip was attending the International AIDS conference held in Durban. “The opportunity to present at my first international scientific conference was exciting, but also made me nervous. I’d heard that 15,000+ delegates were expected to attend, including foreign dignitaries, research superstars, and community leaders. However, the nerves quickly dissipated to a manageable level when I interacted with the communities the conference brought together. It was a great learning experience!”

And it was a very productive summer (winter) for Ashleigh. She distilled the numerous conversations, presentations, and interactions she had with people in South Africa—from those fighting to survive, to those fighting to find solutions—into a solidified research area of interest: Resilience among young people in the context of HIV and AIDS.

Laura Kallio Joyce