George O'Hara '18 Wins Fulbright Award
The chemistry and Russian double major will continue combining his love of the natural sciences and foreign languages in Kiev, Ukraine, where he will conduct research on the integration of addiction treatment and HIV services into primary care clinics.
Last semester, senior chemistry and Russian double major George O'Hara was part of a team that published a PLOS Medicine paper on the HIV epidemic in the Russian Federation. That work utilized his Russian fluency in service of an epidemiological study. Next O'Hara will continue to use his language skills in similar work—studying the HIV epidemic in Ukraine—thanks to a Fulbright Research Award. His Fulbright will fund travel and living expenses for a year in Kiev, where he will conduct autonomous research on the integration of addiction treatment and HIV services into primary care clinics.
"I applied for a Fulbright Research Award to combine my long-standing interests in natural science and foreign languages," he said. "In my first three years as a student of chemistry and Russian at Haverford I came to appreciate the potential that international scientific collaboration holds for cross-cultural exchange."
In many ways his Fulbright represents the culmination of years of work by O'Hara, who began to combine his study of Slavic languages and the AIDS crisis in former Soviet republics back in 2016, when he volunteered in an HIV clinical research lab at Pavlov Medical University in St. Petersburg, during his summer language study there.
"I became interested in exploring the social and cultural dimensions of Russia’s rapidly expanding HIV epidemic," said O'Hara, treasurer of the Haverford Pre-Health Society. "As I continued interacting with patients during lab visits and with my supervisors at Pavlov in an exclusively Russian-speaking environment, I realized the importance of my Russian proficiency as a skill that I could refine to enhance my understanding of the social components of disease."
In Ukraine, which is currently struggling with one of the worst HIV epidemics in Europe, HIV transmissions are particularly concentrated in people who inject drugs (PWID). Opioid agonist therapies (OAT)—in which people replace the addictive opioid, like heroin, with Suboxone or Methadone to prevent getting sick from drug withdrawal—have been used successfully in Ukraine to reduce HIV transmission, but are not yet widespread. The country, therefore, is working to expand delivery of OAT treatments by providing them in primary care clinics. O'Hara's work aims to evaluate the barriers to delivering OAT in such a setting and to identify gender-related factors that affect access to and retention in OAT.
For this research O'Hara, who has spent the past year studying Ukrainian intensively at the University of Pennsylvania via Haverford's Quaker Consortium partnership, will conduct interviews with people who inject drugs and the clinicians who serve them to assess their experience of integrated HIV and addiction treatment in primary care settings across 36 different sites. Though he will conduct this work independently, it will be under the aegis of an ongoing longitudinal study on the integration of addiction treatment and HIV services into primary care clinics in Ukraine directed by Frederick Altice of the Yale School of Medicine, to whom O'Hara was introduced to by the principal investigator on his PLOS Medicine paper, and Sergii Dvoriak of the Ukrainian Institute on Public Health Policy (UIPHP).
"One of my principal foci in these interviews will be to assess how experience of this treatment varies across gender," said O'Hara. "Women account for an increasingly large share of people living with HIV in Ukraine, 44.6 percent, including in PWID. Despite this, women have been underserved in HIV treatment and under-represented in past and ongoing HIV research."
O'Hara plans to eventually go to medical school to pursue epidemiology research that combats infectious diseases that threaten underserved communities both in the U.S. and abroad. He sees this research as an important first step in that work.
"As a Fulbright grantee I aim to apply my Ukrainian and Russian language ability to assess stigma against addiction and HIV treatment to refine combative and preventative strategies against the HIV epidemic in Ukraine, and to build trans-national understanding through this international public health collaboration," he said. "I aim to channel 10 years of language experience into this moment of opportunity to make a lasting impact on public health in Ukraine, a country leading the initiative to modernize aging healthcare systems in Eastern Europe to stem the HIV epidemic. It is my hope, in short, that Ukrainian leadership on this issue can yield health benefits to improve millions of lives across Eastern Europe."