SLU Researcher Receives $1.76 Million NIH Grant to Create STAR, an HIV-Focused Experiential Research and Capacity Building Program for Students and Young Researchers

ST. LOUIS – Who better to design strategies to prevent HIV transmission in young people than young leaders themselves? Through STAR, students and young researchers can become the next generation of leaders in HIV research.

Using a crowdsourcing framework utilized over the past five years, Juliet Iwelunmor, Ph.D., professor of global health and behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, is taking what she learned from empowering youth in Nigeria to identify young people in the United States who aim to become the next generation of HIV researchers, leaders and innovators in the field.

Iwelunmor’s multi-disciplinary team organized young adult implementation HIV research as part of I-TEST (Innovative Tools for Expanding HIV Self-Testing). She received a $2.3 million NIH grant in 2018 to develop and implement a crowdsourced framework for at-risk youth in Nigeria.

“Our I-TEST study discovered that crowdsourcing methods could be used to help identify highly qualified trainees through open calls, build capacity for youth-led research using design-a-thons, and sustain these benefits through participatory learning communities,” Iwelunmor said. “These approaches break new ground in HIV training using participatory methods that will help young people to become leaders and innovators.” 

Recently, Iwelunmor was awarded a five-year $1.76 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to create NIAID STAR (Stimulating Training and Access to HIV Research Experiences). STAR is part of the NIAID Research Education Program, which provides support to eligible institutions to train participants in biomedical research areas, including areas such as HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases. 

HIV is more common among underrepresented minority adolescents and young adults or those ages 13–24, in the United States. Low uptake of HIV prevention services suggests a missed opportunity for implementing evidence-based interventions such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and sexually transmitted infection testing among this population. 

STAR focuses on bottom-up strategies, like crowdsourcing, for youth engagement in HIV prevention research, involving diverse young people as leaders of strength-based HIV prevention interventions. Crowdsourcing has a group of individuals develop a solution and share or implement the best solutions with the community. It includes open calls for submissions; design-a-thons, similar to hack-a-thons; and other participatory activities.

STAR will be a partnership across four participating universities: Saint Louis University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Georgia State University and Texas A&M University.

Each year of the project, 10 students will become part of a year-long cohort where they will build and implement their own crowdsourced research project, receive research and career mentorship, and participate in experiential learning activities covering varied topics including leadership, JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion), and grant writing. Through building capacity in implementation science, crowdsourcing, and related participatory action research methods, students will build and develop innovative strategies to scale up evidence- and strength-based HIV interventions for underrepresented minority young adults.

What does a STAR Scholar look like? To become a STAR Scholar, underrepresented minority undergraduate students, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers at the respective universities apply and submit their creative ideas to an open-call question. A selected number of individuals and teams from each university then move onto the design-a-thon. During the design-a-thon, they receive the opportunity to build and refine their ideas before pitching their ideas to a panel of judges.

Finalists are inducted as STAR Scholars, where they then take part in a six-week hybrid, summer boot camp. Here STAR Scholars participate in capacity-building courses and training modules while still developing their research projects. After the six-week boot camp, the journey of the STAR Scholar continues. For the rest of the year-long program, STAR Scholars engage in online learning communities, take part in mentoring pods, and implement their intervention and research projects in their communities with support from their institutions and STAR network.

“When I think about my own journey into research, I was an undergrad student that didn’t know anything about research until I came across the McNair Scholars program. The McNair Scholars Program paved my way to the MHIRT program. Both then opened a path for me to move straight from a bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D.,” Iwelunmor explained. “I always tried to figure out, ‘How do you make something out of research? How do you make it a career?’ and to see it come back full circle now, where I get to actually be at the helm of helping other undergrads, grads, or doctoral students navigate the world of research and even make it a career, is pure joy to me.”

With the goal of strengthening and developing a sustainable pipeline of diverse HIV-focused research scholars, STAR is a space for voices to be heard, an opportunity for visions to come to life, and a journey worth pursuing.

The co-principal investigator is Joseph D. Tucker, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

This work was supported by grant number R25AI170379-01 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

College for Public Health and Social Justice

The Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice is the only academic unit of its kind, studying social, environmental and physical influences that together determine the health and well-being of people and communities. It also is the only accredited school or college of public health among nearly 250 Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States. Guided by a mission of social justice and focus on finding innovative and collaborative solutions for complex health problems, the college offers nationally recognized programs in public health and health administration.