Back at UC, but still having global impact

May 14, 2018

Last fall, Jennifer Syvertsen settled into her new job as assistant professor of anthropology at UC Riverside. But she is still in close touch with her research collaborators in Kenya and thinks often of mentors who shaped her interest in global health.

Syvertsen, a 2013-14 UCGHI GloCal fellow, was the first scientist to study patterns of injection drug use and HIV risk in Kisumu, Kenya, which has the country’s second highest HIV prevalence. Her research on patterns and factors influencing injection drug use in a new market along a major heroin trafficking route left a mark. After her team shared their study findings with scientists and policymakers at a national stakeholders meeting, one non-governmental organization pledged support for the first needle exchange program in western Kenya.

Prior to her appointment at UC Riverside, she served on the faculty of Ohio State University. However, she is not a stranger to California, as Syvertsen was a post-doctoral fellow at UC San Diego and conducted dissertation research on HIV risk among female sex workers and their intimate partners in the Mexico-US border region. That experience opened the door for her to apply to the GloCal fellowship and expand her research in new directions.

Syvertsen first became interested in HIV prevention when working as a research assistant at the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies, a Miami-based affiliate of the University of Delaware. “I didn’t even know that people studied drug use for a living, and I didn’t know anything about HIV or sex work,” said Syvertsen. “But it was through this job and talking to people who participated in our studies that I realized that I wanted to dedicate my career to understanding and addressing the global HIV epidemic.”

Syvertsen has benefited from several influential mentors throughout her career, including the late Jim Inciardi, a University of Delaware criminologist and sociologist who initially urged her to go to graduate school and to research abroad. “Because 70 percent of the global burden of HIV infection is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, I wanted to go there,” said Syvertsen. “I wanted to pursue collaborative work in a place where the epidemic was serious and research could have a potentially important impact.”

She also noted Steffanie Strathdee, director of the UC San Diego Global Health Institute and vice chair of the UCGHI Board of Directors, who “provided me with the opportunity to work on her project in Tijuana and facilitated the connections that brought me to Kenya.”

“Dr. Kawango Agot and Dr. Spala Ohaga have been outstanding mentors and collaborators in Kisumu and I am proud of the research we have produced and our influence on local policy,” she said. They continue to collaborate, including publishing their work in leading journals.

At UCSF, Carol Camlin, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences, and Craig Cohen, co-director of UCGHI, “were instrumental in helping me begin work in Kenya, including introducing me to people and helping me navigate the logistics in a new place.”

Syvertsen’s training in anthropology informs her ethnographic approach and ethical commitment to the local communities in which she works. She also credits the success of her research program in Kenya to her graduate training from mentors, including Nancy Romero-Daza, David Himmelgreen, Bryan Page and Robin Pollini.

“All of my mentors have provided an ear to listen and support and encouragement,” she said. “They have helped me think through issues and many have given me feedback not only on my research but genuine advice on my career and life choices more broadly.”

Now, as a UC Riverside faculty member, she becomes a mentor too. “I think the biggest role I can play is to help students discover their own unique path and try to help them gain the skills and perspectives that they need to achieve their goals,” said Syvertsen. “We don’t all have the same path or career ambitions and I think it’s important to respect everyone’s ambitions and to foster new opportunities for the next cohorts of graduate students, just like my mentors did for me.”

“I also think it’s vitally important to be a mentor to my research assistants in Kenya,” she said. “I do not view them as only data collectors, but as colleagues who are vital in making the studies happen and whose professionalization and skills development I am ethically obligated to support. I involve them in the data analysis process and manuscripts and try to create opportunities for them to present the research in local venues whenever possible.”

At UC Riverside, she hopes to develop new medical anthropology courses and mentor graduate students who will pursue global health work.

“I will continue my research in Kenya over the coming years and I hope to eventually develop a field school that will bring students who are interested in global health to Kenya for training in ethnographic research methods, she said. “I also want to bring Kenyan students to UCR to have the same opportunities to travel and study in a different country and culture just like I did.”

“In addition, I hope to launch local community-based research right here in Southern California – we can do great anthropology and global health work in our own backyard,” she said. “Given the current political situation, there is plenty of need and opportunities for applied research and student training.”