Full Circle

One of the best things about our experience in South Africa this summer is that we are embedded in the well-oiled machine that is the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council, if you don’t remember). The Together Tomorrow study is only one of several projects that the HSRC is operating simultaneously. Coordinating multiple multi-million dollar studies that are all functioning on different schedules and at different points in their development is a huge feat—one that has been impressive to witness. There are more than 50 employees at our office site alone, and with so much to do, there’s little downtime.

In order to understand how research is carried out, from conceptualization to dissemination of the results, we sometimes tag along with other projects’ research activities. Recently, Dr. Lynae Darbes (a Co-Investigator on the Together Tomorrow project) came to the HSRC offices to wrap up her previous study and share her findings. Similar to Together Tomorrow, Uthando Lwethu focused on couples. However, it looked at whether heterosexual couples who participated in a couples-based counseling intervention were more likely to test for HIV together (spoiler: they were). Testing for HIV together is beneficial because it promotes mutual disclosure of HIV status and counseling and information for the couple to move forward, tailored by each of their HIV status (both HIV-negative, both HIV-positive, or serodiscordant).

So, great! The intervention worked!

The next step is to tell people about it- an intervention can’t be expanded upon if no one knows how it worked in one context and how it might be adapted for another. This takes two things: telling other academics and telling the study participants themselves. While researchers are usually pretty good at telling other academics (e.g. by writing up the results in an academic journal), it is imperative that the results be shared with the people and communities who were involved in the study. That way, the wider scientific community gets to know how the study went and so do the people who actually participated in it. This is the part that academics have historically not done so well.

Fortunately, at HSRC, they rock this part.

After each study, HSRC organizes a results dissemination meeting in a community center that is located in the study community. In order to drum up enthusiasm and ensure as many people were aware of the results dissemination meeting as possible, they also organize a motorcade of more than a dozen white pickup trucks led by two megaphone-equipped Land Cruisers. In a caravan of Mad Max proportions, we slowly rolled through each and every neighborhood from which Uthando Lwethu recruited. We (and about 30 others) handed out fliers with the meeting information, stopped at community gathering spots, and two guys took turns yelling the time and place over the aforementioned megaphones. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone around that day didn’t hear the purpose, time, and location of the meeting at least a few times!

As entertaining as the motorcade was, it was heartening to see the commitment to community engagement that HSRC has. Too often, researchers “parachute” in and collect data, only to disappear without any meaningful attempt at meaningful recognition or inclusion of the people in their study communities. Sharing the results of the study and receiving feedback on what can be done better next time brings the research process full-circle. It reinforces the trust and communication that is carefully fostered by organizations like HSRC and encourages the social change that is the whole purpose of conducting behavioral research. HSRC consistently shows us what it means to value and work for one’s community through research, and the fact that Dr. Darbes flew halfway around the world to relay what she found—not just to other academics, but to her study participants—models the kind of researchers we aim to be.