The gift of discernment has always been a distinctive natural talent for HEALTH Research Institute’s Dr. Chakema Carmack.
When Carmack was working on her undergraduate and nearing graduation at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, she remembered her professor directly pose a question to her about ambition and career path, “do you want to do research or practice?”
“I told my professor, Dr. Rackley, I wanted to do research and I wanted to get a doctorate degree,” Carmack said. “The best advice from him I got was—‘you have to go somewhere where they are doing what you want to do.’”
Fast forward to her first years of work as a researcher and University of Houston Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological, Health and Learning Sciences, Carmack said that it was that salient piece of insight that helped shape her work as a researcher.
“I believe that representation was my inspiration. Seeing someone before me who is doing what I want to do showed me that it could happen,” Carmack said. “Find someone who is doing what you want to do—and study them.”
Carmack recently received a NOSI grant to spearhead an initiative for reducing the incidence of HIV and sexually transmitted infections and diseases in African American and Hispanic communities in Houston. Awarded $581,145 for her initiative, Carmack is working to create an engaging podcast about HIV education featuring professional actors and voices from the community. This project is supported by the HEALTH Center for Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention’s (PI: Ezemenari M. Obasi) research infrastructure at UH.
“The idea of creating a podcast just occurred to me,’ Carmack said. “We are trying to prevent STI’s and STDS—and a lot of young adults in the African American community still don’t realize the importance of using condoms, getting HIV tests and refraining from multiple concurrent partners.”
The need for continued HIV education in the African American community is palpable, according to Carmack.
In Carmack’s joint journal paper Profiles of Emerging Adult Online Daters and Psychosocial Cognitions about Condom Use published in the Open Journal of Social Sciences, she explores the connections between online dating and risky sexual behavior.
Some of the preliminary findings and myths include that some respondents did not understand that HIV could lie dormant or asymptomatic for 10 years or more and that the severity of HIV infection could be diminished quickly by bio-pharmaceutical innovations.
“Houston is in the past and currently is one of the hotspots for HIV, STI’s,” Carmack noted. “Even in 2022, some still think it’s a badge of honor to sleep with multiple partners. We want to promote a culture of sexual health in this community. It’s a badge of honor to get your negative HIV test—or it’s a badge of honor to know your status and be able to protect others. We’re really focused on this community aspect. We want to take out the fatalism of it. Knowing empowers you.”
Carmack added that the HIV prevention podcast development will occur in two phases.
“The first phase is the information gathering phase and the second phase is the actual production and testing of materials,” Carmack said. “We’re currently in the first phase which includes doing the focus groups and seeing what information the community actually knows about HIV, STI’s---more importantly, what are the myths that have been taught all their lives.”
Carmack’s ultimate goal with the podcast initiative is to produce high-quality videos that will help better inform and influence decisions regarding sexual behavior.
“This summer, we are estimated to start video production, “ Dr. Carmack said. “These will be live action videos with professionally trained actors and professional production. There will be two videos—one for males and one for females. After the production, we will sample another set of participants. They will complete a pre-test and watch the videos and complete a post-test.”
For Carmack, this would mark just the start of a progressive HIV prevention and education plan through the podcast outreach.
“Once we can prove that the podcasts work and can change the attitude about using condoms and HIV tests, I would definitely like to create a partnership with the Houston Health Department,” Dr. Carmack said. “Mass media is how we can put out the information, and it would be free to the public. I would love partnerships with the health department and other government departments to put these on the websites.”
Carmack’s motivation to work as a community psychologist comes from her desire to help others through her research. She was first ignited by the idea to study sexual behavior and drug behavior after collaboration with her mentor, Dr. Murelle Harrison, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Southern University and A&M College. Then, she came across a program at Wichita State University which studied adolescent behavior.
“I wanted to intervene and help young women and help young men,” Carmack said. “I wanted them to get accurate information and biology about these diseases. It is important to understand how different things can influence your decision and how to have skills and resources to combat those things that make you engage in harmful health behavior.”
When Carmack looks in retrospect at her career trajectory, she is heartened by the power of mentorship that she helped participate in and create.
“I would love my legacy to be that I made an impact—and at least started the path for other African American researchers who are interested in a culture of sexual health in the African American community,” Carmack added. “I can thank so many mentors—from Dr. Murelle Harrison to Dr. Rhonda Lewis. Now I have fabulous mentors in the HEALTH Research Institute like Dr. Ezemenari Obasi and Dr. Lorraine Reitzel. I’m just passing it forward.”
Carmack underscored that the most critical thing in the development of a strong research path is representation and mentorship.
“I feel like life has come full circle, and often spirals upward. I realize that you pass the same point in life, but you’re on a higher plane,” Carmack said. “For example, I have a lead research assistant, Taylor Coleman—and she is just soaring. I can now actually see that I am now Dr. Rhonda Lewis, and my graduate assistant is me. This is how it happens. You need representation and mentorship. The researcher herself gets so much pleasure out of passing the knowledge forward, and this is not in vain. If nobody ever knows my name, I know I will still be doing good work, and it will be passed along.”
By Alison Medley