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February 27, 2018 - ATN Researcher Profile: Kelly Knudtson

Kelly Knudtson and her dog Raisin
Kelly Knudtson and her dog Raisin

The only plan in Mexico City was to dive right in. Kelly Knudtson arrived there from southern California in her mid-twenties with the belief that the best tool to understand a complex world is to learn new things, and enjoy yourself along the way.

“I loved being in Mexico City,” Knudtson said. “Culturally it’s a fascinating place, a huge art capital.” During her time there, Knudtson taught English, worked for the HIV/AIDS clinic in the city, and was involved with the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico (the INSP).

“I was really interested in immersing myself,” Knudtson said. This experience was a preview of what was to come in a career in public health research.

After three years of living in Mexico City, the California-born Berkeley graduate formed a plan for a new experience: life in the American South, and pursuit of a graduate degree in public health at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (UNC).

Having been born in the west and lived in the north (Michigan, where she helped start the first opiate overdose program in the state) the point of living in the southern US was to experience its unique cultural quirks. She made the move to Durham, NC, where she lives today.

Along with her drive to understand a complex world, part of what inspired Knudtson to turn to public health in her career was her the influence of her mother, a nurse practitioner. “She taught me the importance of taking care of others and always showing others respect,” she said. “Treating people well is really undervalued.”

After earning her master’s degree in 2015, Knudtson took her near-decade of experience working in HIV prevention in Mexico City, as well as in Guatemala through a master’s practicum, and took a role that brought her into the ATN to use her qualitative research expertise. Currently she is a social/clinical research specialist for the UNC - Chapel Hill Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

“I am interested in sexual health and well-being, and solving health disparities that exist in health and well-being,” Knudtson said. “All of the projects I’m working on involve a person living with HIV or a person who is HIV negative but who is at risk.”

She is now working on three HIV-related projects, including ATN 142, “P3: Prepared, Protected, Empowered.” P3 is an iTech study within the ATN that is being geared up for field testing. The study’s investigators will test the use of an app to help the study participants take daily PrEP, or Pre-exposure Prophylaxis, medication. PrEP, when taken daily, has been shown to reduce the chances of contracting HIV. Adherence to taking medication is essential for PrEP to work as an HIV intervention.

The study will enroll participants to test the app, which is designed to help people remember to take PrEP daily. Participants will be men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with men (YTW) between the ages of 16-24 who do not have HIV.

Some participants will receive a standard CDC-recommended level of care for PrEP adherence. Others will receive the P3 intervention, which involves the use of the app to help boost adherence. Another set of participants will be tested with P3+, which means the participants can access an adherence counselor over text messaging. Usability testing for the app was just completed, and enrollment for the field test will begin in early summer of 2018.

“I work to make sure content is accurate, relevant, and meeting deadlines,” Knudtson said of the P3 project. “I arrange work with vendors for design and functionality.” She also communicates with the iTech Institutional Review Board (IRB) to coordinate study sites in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, New York (the Bronx), and Houston.

With her background in qualitative research and current work on three research projects, it might be assumed that Knudtson loves data. However, she says, “It is not a love of data … the world is so complex data isn’t going to capture all of it.” This is a problem that she and other researchers are still working on, she says.

Among these researchers are some of her most important influencers. The principal investigator on the P3 study, Dr. Lisa Hightow-Wiedman, associate professor of medicine in the Department of Infectious Diseases at UNC - Chapel Hill, is a major mentor in Knudtson’s life. Another mentor is Dr. Clare Barrington, associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior at UNC - Chapel Hill. “They have shown me how to balance work/life with a smile and a sense of humor,” Knudtson said.

When she’s not at work, Knudtson makes use of her self-taught sewing and quilting ability to make her own clothes and other crafts. She is also a fan of making Mexican food at home in Durham, where she cares for her hairless pet dog, Raisin.

 

Learn more about iTech here, and more about the study Knudtson is working on, ATN 142, here.