Second-year PhD student Maria Jose Baeza Robba
(Article originally published on the University of Miami, School of Nursing and Health Studies website: https://www.sonhs.miami.edu/research/featured-research/a-mentoring-match-made-in-the-pandemic/index.html)
Second-year PhD student Maria Jose Baeza Robba and Assistant Professor Nicholas Metheny join forces to tackle grad school, research firsts, and COVID-19 concerns in the sexual and gender minority community.
Arriving in Miami as a first-year PhD student, Maria Jose Baeza Robba felt somewhat lost. “I was coming from another country (Chile) in the middle of a pandemic and I was a BSN-to-PhD student, which is an overwhelming experience altogether,” recalled Baeza. However, much of that trepidation changed for Baeza, who is now in her second year of the program, when she met her research mentor, Nicholas Metheny, an assistant professor who was also new to Miami and the School of Nursing and Health Studies (SONHS).
“Not only was there a research connection, because we both shared a passion for sexual and gender minority health, but we were speaking the same language and had a unique camaraderie because of our experiences,” said Dr. Metheny. “We have the same drive for this work, and we knew what it felt like to be new to a role and a place like Miami in the middle of a pandemic. We didn’t have all of the answers to everything right away … but what was important was the grace that we gave each other as we figured things out together.”
Like Baeza, Metheny had earned his PhD through a BSN-PhD track, another connection she credits with helping her successfully complete her first year of graduate school. “When you start a PhD, you feel like you don’t know very much. But Dr. Metheny found a way to relate to me, and he encouraged me to keep going,” she explained.
That encouragement led to Baeza’s involvement with CEAL, the Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 program, a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded grant that seeks to conduct community outreach by raising awareness and addressing misinformation about COVID-19 in minority communities. The NIH awarded $12 million to a nonprofit organization, RTI International, for the creation of CEAL programs in 11 states. Florida’s team, led by Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, of the University of Miami, includes a powerhouse lineup of researchers from UM, University of Florida, Florida International University (FIU), Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), Moffit Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, and Health Choice Network.
One of the Florida research teams is comprised of investigators from the Center for Latino Health Research Opportunities (CLaRO) (PIs: Dr. Victoria Behar-Zusman and Dr. Mario De La Rosa), who are studying vaccine hesitancy and prevention practices in different Latinx populations, including urban low-income and agricultural/ farmworker communities through focus groups, cross-sectional, and longitudinal surveys. As part of the CLaRO CEAL team, Metheny and Baeza have led the charge for research priorities of sexual and gender minority (SGM) communities. During the UM Graduate School’s recent research symposium, Baeza was able to present an abstract on some of these findings.
“We’ve found that there is not much vaccine hesitancy in the SGM population when compared to the other Latinx groups being researched,” said Baeza. Another discovery is that the SGM population wants to be informed, and is in search of good, reliable information sources. To meet this need, Baeza, Metheny, and student volunteer Caitlin Rempson have developed weekly, themed resource blasts informed by their focus group findings. The resource blasts go out to focus group participants as well as clients of Latinos Salud and Pridelines, two key SGM-serving organizations in South Florida. Past resource blasts have focused on how and where to get the vaccine; answered questions about HIV medications, Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV, and the COVID-19 vaccine; and provided SGM-safe community resources, among other related topics. Their most recent information blast offers strategies on how to talk to friends who are more vaccine hesitant.
“This is important because our SGM participants want to share their experiences, and helping them start these conversations is invaluable to our efforts of getting more people vaccinated and achieving herd immunity,” said Metheny.
Of particular relevance to this group was the comparison of HIV to COVID-19. “During the focus group, several individuals brought up the resiliency experienced in the SGM community because of HIV and talked about how this experience could be applied to COVID-19, given the stigma of the disease,” Baeza noted.
She and Metheny also learned that the SGM population stressed the importance of social responsibility and getting vaccinated. “Our participants wanted strategies on how to share their experiences because they feel getting the vaccine is a social responsibility that helps keep everyone safe, which they compared to using PrEP,” explained Metheny. “Our sample skews younger and more liberal, so other than the fact that hesitancy was less prevalent, we found that they value bidirectional communication, and instant answers to questions, which inspired a new idea that is currently in the works.” This new idea involves creating a COVID-19 text message line where people can submit questions and receive answers grounded in science. “We also see it as a way to garner feedback from the community on how useful our resource blasts have been, and how we can improve them,” said Baeza.
What’s next for this dynamic duo? “There are two publications in the works—a paper that describes the qualitative findings of our focus group that will be written by the Florida CEAL team and a paper specifically on vaccine hesitancy among men who have sex with men,” said Metheny, who added, “CEAL is only the beginning for Maria Jose.”
Thanks to her recent experiences at SONHS, Baeza feels ready to tackle new and equally exciting research endeavors. “Dr. Metheny has really helped set a lot of research challenges that have increased my skill set, and I am lucky to have him as a mentor,” she shared. For Metheny, the positive feelings are mutual. “It has been rewarding to be able to co-mentor Maria Jose with Dr. Joseph DeSantis, a well-established researcher here at the SONHS, and see her growth in the short time we’ve been able to share together. I know Maria Jose will go on to accomplish great things, and I am thrilled I get to play a role in her academic journey.”