research corner: Dr. Deborah konkle-parker

Dr. Deborah Konkle-Parker is a Professor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases, School of Nursing, and School of Population Health. She has worked at UMMC since 1996. Here, she tells us about her research and her passion for health disparity research.

What is your professional background? 

My background is as a nurse and nurse practitioner and then as a researcher, but my first bachelor’s degree was in social psychology. My love for behavioral science came full circle as I got my PhD in Nursing, with a focus on health behavior research. I worked as a nurse practitioner in the Infectious Diseases HIV clinic with Dr. Harold Henderson from 1996–2001 before I completed my PhD, and have continued working there as a nurse practitioner. I served as the clinic manager throughout my NIH-funded Research Career Development K23 award and my R34, testing interventions in the clinic to improve medication adherence and retention in care. In 2012, I began working on an NIH application to be a joint cohort site for the Women’s Interagency HIV Study with Drs. Michael Saag and Mirjam Kempf at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) Center for AIDS Research, which we then began implementing in 2013 after we were funded, along with 3 other southern cohort sites.

Tell us about the MAC/WIHS Combined Cohort study.

The Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS) was a longitudinal cohort study starting in 1984, consisting of thousands of men living with or at risk for HIV in 4 sites in northern and western states where HIV began to impact the U.S., seeking information about the pathophysiology, transmission and treatment of HIV disease. The Women’s Interagency HIV Study (WIHS) was a similar study starting in 1993, focusing on thousands of women living with or at risk for HIV in 6 different sites, also in northern and western states, and expanding with 4 new southern sites in 2013. WIHS was seeking information about the specific differences in the impact of HIV on women. Under the auspices of NHLBI, the MACS and WIHS were brought together for the MACS/WIHS Combined Cohort Study (MWCCS, https://mwccs.org/ ) in 2018, in order to continue following the currently living cohort of roughly 4000 men and women, as well as an additional 1500 participants, primarily men in the southern states where the cases of HIV are the highest. NHLBI and the 13 other funding institutes are seeking information about the impact on people aging with HIV, to understand the pathophysiology and treatment of comorbidities that profoundly affect their lives, and the impact of health disparities and psychosocial vulnerabilities. UMMC plans a cohort of 200 – 215 men and women, as will the joint cohort site at UAB (https://sites.uab.edu/mwccs/). We will be seeking men aged 30 or older living with HIV or have HIV transmission risks, starting in October 2020, and would be happy to receive referrals from inside or outside of the healthcare arena.

You are also involved in a new study called STAR, right? Tell us about that.

The Study of Treatment and Reproductive Options (STAR) is a new prospective longitudinal cohort study of 2000 women of reproductive years (ages 18-45) either living with or at risk for HIV in 5 states across the Southeastern U.S. This study will benefit from the existing WIHS infrastructure, but will allow enrollment of younger women than were generally enrolled in WIHS, and will focus on reproductive outcomes as well as the oral and mental health impacts of HIV. UMMC will enroll 200 women in that age group, as will UAB. As in MWCCS, they will have annual study visits that consist of a physical exam, an interview consisting of multiple questionnaires, and specimen collection of blood and other body fluids. We will be seeking women aged 18-45 living with HIV or have HIV transmission risks, starting in about October 2020, and would be happy to receive referrals from inside or outside the healthcare arena.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing research?

My recommendation is to engage with others who are already doing research in roughly the areas you are interested in, as I have discovered from experience that it’s highly unlikely that an investigator will be able to implement and gain credibility in research without partnering with others. MWCCS and STAR, as well as many other studies at UMMC, have a lot of opportunities, especially for secondary data analysis, experience in data collection and/or management, or the use of specimens in our local or central repositories to provide for basic science discovery, without having to take the time to gather your own data/specimens.

What do you like most about UMMC?

I like the focus on addressing health disparities and focusing on vulnerable individuals living with poor health outcomes. As with many health conditions, the Deep South is very under-researched and under-resourced regarding HIV, so I see this as an area where I can potentially made a big difference in peoples’ lives and as a contribution to the science, which is very satisfying. In addition, I haven’t found the research environment as cutthroat as I believe it can be in major research institutions, though at the same time, researchers are “thin on the ground,” meaning that when you want to find a research mentor or researchers to brainstorm with, it would be nice to have a whole lot more of them! But as someone interested in research, you can make a big difference, and can become part of an important cadre of people.

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