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Mildred and Herbert Weisinger Dissertation Fellowship

Suzan M. Walters, Sociology

Dissertation Title: Diffusion of Awareness about Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV Prevention: A Mixed Method Comparative Analysis of Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM), People Who Inject Drugs (PWID), and Heterosexuals at High Risk for HIV

Can you tell us, in general terms, about your research?

My dissertation examines awareness rates of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP – a pill that is taken daily to prevent HIV) among three “risk” groups: men who have sex with men (MSM); people who inject drugs (PWID); and heterosexuals.

The dissertation addresses three primary concerns. First, I document differences in awareness by risk groups, with MSM highest and PWID and heterosexuals significantly lower. Second, I demonstrate inequalities in awareness over time among PWID and MSM, showing rapid growth in awareness among MSM and minimal growth among PWID. Third, I explain how PrEP awareness is spreading and why awareness is diffusing at unequal rates.

The findings indicate networks as efficient means for disseminating awareness of PrEP. Therefore, campaigns to increase PrEP awareness should work closely with communities (networks) to tailor initiatives by gender, sexuality, risk population, race/ethnicity, and other axes of difference.

What excites you about your work?

I am most passionate about my work because it can literally save lives. I spent years doing ethnographic work within communities at risk, but the work that resonates most with me is the time I spent at a syringe exchange program (SEP) on Long Island. Sitting at the SEP and walking around the neighborhood, I learned the daily struggles of people who inject drugs (PWID) and became friendly with many PWID.

Phillipe Bourgois says that drug abuse “is merely a symptom – and a vivid symbol – of deeper dynamics of social marginalization and alienation.” This dissertation demonstrates how structural inequalities are experienced on an individual level. What keeps me energized is the hope that my work will aid in mitigating inequalities. I believe we can create a world where all groups have equal awareness and access to prevention medications.

How has your time at Stony Brook helped equip your for success?

The sociology department is a space where intellectual conversations and scholarly development are encouraged and supported. When I think of how I came to this point in my academic career, I think about a few things. First, I think of the community of students in my department. We have created informal groups for intellectual engagement and learning along with a mentoring program. We have groupings by subject matter, as such I think about my gender cohort, reading groups, and my two graduate student mentors who helped me acclimate to Stony Brook and continue to give feedback and encouragement on my work.

Second, I think about the courses I have taken and the countless faculty in sociology and women’s and gender studies that have encouraged my work and provided critical feedback. Third, I think about my work with the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, where we work to bridge the gap between activism and research so that academic work can have real world impacts.

Last, I think of my advisors – Kathleen Fallon, Michael Kimmel, and Michael Schwartz – who have been so generous with their time and have shaped the way I think and see this world. The support I have received at Stony Brook has helped me formulate my research and write a strong dissertation that I hope will have broad impacts for equality in health care.

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