University researchers work to aid LGBTQ sexual and reproductive health
The work and research of Nursing Professor Rob Stephenson is dedicated to the study of sexual and reproductive health. In addition to being a trained epidemiologist and demographer, Stephenson holds a Ph.D. from University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With a concentration in HIV prevention as well as sexual and gender minorities, Stephenson aims to apply his own experiences to bettering the LBGTQ community.
Stephenson reflected on the effect his identity and background in had on his work. He grew up in a rural area of England and found that living in his conservative community presented difficulties for him as a young, gay man.
“I quickly became aware of how stigma and discrimination can have a negative impact on your health,” he said.
After turning 17, Stephenson moved to London for college. During this time, he noted the growing HIV epidemic evolving around him, and he felt he needed to be instrumental in positive change and research.
“That's really how I got into the field of sexual and reproductive health,” he said. “I wanted to make something as normal and commonplace as sex and sexuality safer.”
Among his more notable projects, Stephenson highlighted Project Nexus, for which he is the lead investigator. The project was created as a response to the growing need for communication surrounding HIV risk in male couples, and it works to provide the unique needs of all communtities through these services.
The program sends testing kits to young male couples, then allows them to schedule counseling via video chat. Through this process, couples are better able to understand the results of the test. Their counselors are available to help with the next potential course of action, such as linking the couple to further care. Thus far, the service has been provided to 400 male couples in the United States, and this number continues to grow.
Additionally, Stephenson is the director of the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities, based in School of Nursing. There, he works with faculty and student research assistants to conduct research on a broad range of sexual health problems. In addition to working with LGBTQ communities, the center focuses on women's reproductive health and health in resource-poor countries.
“What is really exciting to me is that we attract research assistants from across the University,” he said. “We have a range of disciplines that come here to do their training.”
This year, Stephenson is taking a break from teaching to focus fully on his many research projects. In the past, he has taught a research grant writing course for doctoral students, and he plans to teach a sexual and reproductive health introductory course next year. He highlighted that much of his teaching and work in research indirectly serves to mentor the students he works with.
Public Health student Nick Suárez has worked on various projects with Stephenson, including a scoping review on the sexual health of transgender men and training as an HIV test counselor in Project Nexus. He has also worked with quantitative analyses of intimate partner violence, depression and drug and alcohol abuse among same-sex male couples.
“This research significantly impacted my academic and professional goals by thoroughly developing my interest in programmatic work and interventions around partner violence among MSM (men who have sex with men) as well as connecting me to community organizations serving the LGBT community and other top researchers nationwide in this field,” he said.
Suárez is continuing to work on several projects with Stephenson, including Swerve and Project Moxie.
“My work also effectively prepared me for my graduate studies in public health by providing me with direction and instruction from Dr. Stephenson specifically in statistics, theory and program development and management,” he said.
Stephenson says his goal is to further sexual health research and continue to progress as a society.
“There are lots of centers across the country that focus on one element of sexual health, for example HIV research, my mission is to make U of M and particularly our center the leader in holistic sexual health research,” he said.