Willa Dong to work with HIV/STI expert in China in summer 2017

Photo: Willa Dong

Willa Dong, a second-year doctoral student in health behavior from Gaithersburg, Maryland, will work as a research assistant with Dr. Joseph T.F. Lau, a professor in the Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, during summer 2017. Professor Lau is the founding president of the Hong Kong Society of Behavioral Health. He is a leading researcher in the field of HIV and STI prevention in greater China.

Willa is the recipient of two competitive awards, which made her summer work in China possible.*

Willa is an experienced public health researcher, who earned a bachelor’s degree in public health at the University of California at Berkeley and a Master’s of Science degree in Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She worked as a researcher with the Shenzhen Center for Chronic Disease Control from 2012-2013 and at the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2013-2015. Her work there included developing and teaching qualitative research methods workshops and coordinating an international summit on assessing transgender women’s HIV-related needs.

“I am looking forward to being mentored by a team with such extensive experience with communities disproportionately impacted by HIV,” says Willa, whose dissertation research will focus on the mental health and HIV needs of transgender women in China. Willa has been engaged with sexual health including transgender health, STIs and HIV in China and in the U.S. since 2012.

Photo: Dr. Muessig

Willa’s adviser is Kate Muessig, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior. Muessig is a public health interventionist and social scientist whose research centers on the prevention and care of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in the urban U.S. and in China.

Why do you see the intersection of HIV, mental health and transgender women as a compelling area to address in China at this time?

There has been very little research on transgender women’s health worldwide, and this is only beginning to change. In China, transgender women likely experience high levels of both mental health and HIV. These high levels necessitate approaches beyond the traditional public health silos.

What are you working on at the moment?

I work with Kate Muessig, my adviser, as a graduate research assistant. In this role I have been involved with usability trials for a virtual reality intervention on HIV disclosure among men who have sex with men and preparing an HIV peer-educator training for Chinese men who have sex with men. Willa will be in Hong Kong and Shenyang from June 11-August 4 when the training takes place.

Willa’s work as a research assistant is funded through faculty grants. **

What is it about your experience at UNC that is most valuable to you?

I am very appreciative of being part of a department with such a strong commitment to both teaching and research. Not only have I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Muessig on meaningful and novel interventions for LGBT youth, but also I find myself applying many skills and concepts from my coursework in this research.

What career direction do you want to pursue when you finish your doctoral degree?

I would like to work as a researcher at an international non-profit organization or a government agency to address the health needs of global LGBTQ and sex worker populations through community-based approaches.

*Willa’s  summer research is funded by a Seed Grant Award from UNC’s Graduate Certificate in Participatory Research: http://participatoryresearch.web.unc.edu/2017-seed-grant-awards/ and the Center for Global Initiative’s Pre-Dissertation Exploration Award: http://cgi.unc.edu/funding-opp/pre-dissertation/

**Her work as a graduate research assistant is funded through faculty grants including two NIMH-funded projects (R21MH105292, PI Muessig and R01MH093275, PI Hightow-Weidman) and a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for AIDS Research developmental grant (2015, P30 AI50410, PI Muessig).