Kyle sits comfortably in an orange chair in the Student Organization Suite, looking sharp in a taupe grey suit. His grey and black striped tie complements his intense blue eyes, which look into mine earnestly. A native of Naperville, Illinois, Kyle has the fine complexion, blonde hair, and intrinsic manners of a guy raised in the suburbs, but as I soon come to realize, the research he is involved in extends well beyond the realms of suburbia.
“So Kyle, what’s your earliest memory of your interest in science?”
“Honestly, I’ve always been interested in science. Ever since I was a little kid in elementary school, I was really intrigued by the scientists that would come into class and do presentations. I would go home and do my own weird experiments in the kitchen all the time, like the Coca Cola and Mentos one. My mom was not happy about that one.”
He chuckles as he looks at me, the memory lighting up his face.
“Did she make you clean it up?”
“Oh, yeah, you know she did.”
I laugh as he smiles fondly, and after a short pause, I charge forward.
“So Kyle I’m really interested in hearing about your research—can you tell me a little bit about what you do?”
“I’m working at the Health Promotion and Care Lab—HPAC for short—under Dr. Steven Safren. Currently, I work under Brooke Rogers, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology, in a study called SLEEP+. SLEEP+ is examining how sleep problems affect HIV health and quality of life. We work with a population that I’ve never really gotten in contact with—people who can’t afford high-tech HIV care. We go to Jackson Memorial Clinic, where we typically sit with participants for about 1-2 hours for their baseline visit and do a short questionnaire with them.”
“Are there any requirements a participant would need to meet in order to be in the study?”
“Yeah, our participants have to be HIV positive or have AIDS, and they have to be a patient at Jackson Memorial Clinic between the ages of 18 and 65. If they meet those requirements, they are able to participate in the study. Besides the questionnaire we make them fill out, we collect saliva samples, to see if there are any inflammatory biomarkers – stress indicators – in their bodies. After that, we have them fill out a sleep diary for a week, which helps us to see how they think they’re sleeping. On top of that, they wear a device called an Actigraph for a week, which tracks their movement and helps us see how long and when they are actually sleeping. After a week, they come back to the clinic with their sleep diary and Actigraph, and we analyze the data from both.
“Is there any kind of follow-up after the week, or is it just the one week?”
“Yeah so participants come back for a 3-month and 6-month follow up. We also look at their medical records after a year, to observe any fluctuations in their CD4 levels or viral load.”
“What is the significance of CD4 levels and viral load?”
“Viral load is an indicator of how much HIV is in your blood, so if you have a high viral load—which can happen if you don’t take your medication regularly— that’s a bad sign. CD4 cells are white blood cells important in the immune system, and your CD4 levels are indicative of how healthy your immune system is. Low CD4 levels are not a good sign; generally anything below 200 puts someone with HIV at serious risk for illness.”
“Mhm. So how does this all play out in the study? Like what is the end goal of this study?”
“The end goal for SLEEP+ is to see if there is any correlation between sleep quality and HIV health outcomes and quality of life. If we find that how a patient sleeps has a salient effect, then the next step is to study whether we can improve sleep in people living with HIV/AIDS to improve these health outcomes.”
“But why sleep?”
“So as many people may know, there is an association between sleep and depression. The HPAC lab actually looks at the comorbidity of depression and HIV health, so obviously if you are depressed you aren’t gonna take good of care of your body and you’re less likely to take your medication. Subsequently, your CD4 levels will be lower and your immune system will not be able to fight diseases as well. If you aren’t sleeping properly, you are more likely to be agitated and more likely to be depressed. We just kind of look at how all of this fits together.”
“So the end goal is not to find a cure for HIV.”
“No, definitely not. What we do in health psychology is find ways to use psychological interventions to improve quality of life and behavioral health so those living with HIV can have a higher standard of living.”
“That’s really interesting. So when did you start with this research?”
“Over the summer, in May.”
“Yeah, this summer. It was my first research experience and I was so scared. My mentors were so helpful though. They guided me in ways I could have never imagined and opened my mind to new opportunities. From the first day, oh my god, Dr. Safren and Brooke were so helpful. They gave me an opportunity to help the LGBTQ community in a way that I never thought I could. It’s scary, coming out as LGBTQ affirmative, because of the stigma against it. But by working in this lab I got to help the LGBTQ community in a long term, medical way, which was really awesome for me.”
At this point, I am star-struck. However, I stay professional, and respond with the utmost professionalism: “That’s awesome. That’s like, really awesome. I’m not even saying that for the interview; that’s actually really cool.”
He laughs modestly. “Thank you.”
“So you got really involved in a really short amount of time—how did that feel?”
“At first I was like, ‘Wow, I feel like I’m adulting’. I really did get involved in a short period of time and it felt amazing to actually help out so much in a research project. I wasn’t just sitting there inputting data.”
“So do you think this is something that you’ll continue in the future?”
“Well in the future I actually want to go to law school, but I do want to find a place where my interests meet. I think that this research has opened my eyes to the problems going on in low socioeconomic communities. People in these communities can’t get a job because they have HIV, so then they go on disability, but if they’re on disability they can’t have a job, so it’s this back and forth cycle. I think in the future I’d like to deal more with the legal aspects of this issue, to see how I can help these communities from a legal standpoint.”
“So we’ve talked about a lot, but before we go I have to ask—what do you think constitutes a successful research experience?”
“Honestly, that’s a pretty hard question. It’s hard to measure what success is when you’ve had such a meaningful experience. I think that just getting your foot in the door makes for a successful experience. I definitely advise everyone to get involved in research, because it has opened my eyes to so much more than I thought possible. Honestly—and I can say this wholeheartedly—this is the best experience I have had coming to the University of Miami.”
“Well that’s a very strong statement,” I say as we both start gathering our things to head out the door. His eyes look straight into mine and crinkle with a knowing smile.
“It is, and I will 100% stick by it.”