Global WACh

December 6, 2019

Research Assistant, Anna Larsen, awarded grants to guide journey towards an independent maternal-child HIV research career

Anna Larsen (second right) with PrIMA Kenya-based study staff members (left to right): Joseph Sila (Data manager), Daniel Odinga (Laboratory Manager), Salphine Watoyi (Data Manager), Marwa Motongori (Data Manager), and Harison Lagat (Study Coordinator)

Anna Larsen, second year PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology and Global WACh research assistant, is the recipient of two notable funding awards that will shape her academic journey towards an independent research career in maternal-child HIV.  She is one of 11 student awardees of the Department of Global Health’s 2019 Thomas Francis Jr. Fellowship and one of an even more limited group of awardees of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) prestigious F31 predoctoral training fellowship to support her dissertation research.  The awards provide funding support for fieldwork activities and dedicated supervised research training.

Since Fall of 2018, Anna has supported Global WACh investigators on PrEP implementation studies aimed to prevent HIV acquisition among women and adolescents, and reduce the global burden of HIV transmission.  She is a research assistant for Kenya-based studies that are evaluating PrEP uptake and adherence among adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), as well as pregnant and postpartum women, within maternal-child health (MCH) care settings.

Anna and Daniel Odinga (PriMA Laboratory Manager) assessing collected hair samples from study sites for quality assurance before they are shipped to the U.S. for lab testing.

The Thomas Francis Jr. Fellowship supported Anna’s travel to Kisumu, Kenya to assist lab staff and data managers of the “PrEP in Mothers in Antenatal Care (PrIMA)” randomized cluster trial (PIs: Grace John-Stewart, Jared Baeten), which is assessing two different PrEP delivery models for HIV prevention among pregnant women.  The study collects dried blood spot and hair samples from participants periodically to measure levels of antiretroviral drugs.  As thousands of blood spot and hair samples are collected, ensuring quality data is critical.  Anna worked with the team to systematically identify data issues, consult with facility-based study nurses, and rectify issues prior to shipping samples for testing.  While in Kisumu, Anna had the opportunity to meet staff from another study she assists, the “PrEP Adherence Among AGYW: A Multidimensional Evaluation” (PIs: Grace John-Stewart, Pamela Kohler), with whom she had communicated with remotely for over a year.

A maternal-child health facility on a clear day in Kisumu, Kenya.

The PrIMA study also collects information on depressive symptoms among women to better understand the relationship of depression with birth outcomes. PrIMA’s findings may have important implications for addressing depression among mothers which may also improve neonatal health outcomes.  Integrating depression screening into MCH services could increase treatment and reduce maternal depression-related neonatal outcomes.  This topic is the focus of her PhD and a new two-year NIH F31 fellowship award for dissertation research.  F31 awards are competitive, with success rates below 20 percent. However, applying for a F31 grant pushes students to gain expertise in their areas of interest and to frame what is most important about their research.  Anna’s dissertation will focus on producing data to describe an important, yet neglected disease burden that affects women–mental health in pregnancy and postpartum periods and its associated adverse birth outcomes.

The support she will receive on her F31 grant will support her dissertation research and ongoing research assistantship with Global WACh, and its potential impact on improving maternal and neonatal health.  Her F31 advisory committee includes her mentors, Dr. Grace John-Stewart, Dr. Pamela Collins (Global Health Mental Health), Dr. Barbra Richardson (Global Health), and Dr. Amritha Bhat (Medicine), and Dr. John Kinuthia (Kenyatta National Hospital).  We congratulate Anna for her achievements and look forward to learning more about her work.