Heather Picotte is the new Positive Living, Positive Homes study coordinator at the Pacific AIDS Network. She recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies, where her research focused on the food security of people living with HIV in the Okanagan Valley. She also holds an MA in globalization studies from McMaster University and a BA in anthropology. She loves chocolate and retro new-wave pop, and is constantly learning about Lego, zombies and slugs from her two extremely active and curious children.
We asked Heather 5 questions about her experiences and views on community-based HIV research. If you would like to learn more about the Positive Living, Positive Homes study, feel free to get in touch with Heather at: [email protected] or 250-221-1617.
1. What first piqued your interest in HIV research?
When I was in my third year of university, I took a course in medical anthropology, which is the study of health, illness, and health care systems across cultures. I took a particular interest in how reproductive health, and HIV and other STIs are part of that. Later on, my graduate school supervisor was an anthropologist who does research on women’s reproductive health in Papua New Guinea. She was planning on doing a study on women’s roles in HIV prevention there, and asked me to be involved. I started volunteering at the AIDS Service Organization (ASOs) in Kelowna (Living Positive Resource Centre) so I could learn more from people who were living with HIV.
Shortly after I that, I was offered a position as a client advocate and volunteer coordinator there. I took the job and loved it. Life circumstances dictated that I couldn’t go to Papua New Guinea with my supervisor, but by that time I didn’t want to! I was more interested in staying in Kelowna and basing my doctoral research on the realities of living with HIV in the Okanagan.
2. What role do you think HIV/AIDS research plays in the “real world”?
The research I recently finished, which was for school, was about HIV and food security, and it doesn’t get much more “real world” than food. People love food, need food, gather around each other with food, but often don’t have enough food – so I feel that research on food security is always applicable to the real world, not just the theoretical world that academics sometimes like to live in. My research looked at systemic barriers to food security for people living with HIV, and I tried my best to point out the everyday things in people’s lives that either helped them or hindered them in affording, obtaining, and eating healthy food.
Now I’m working with PAN on the Positive Living, Positive Homes study, and tackling another one of life’s basic necessities: shelter. It’s an interesting transition for me, because food and shelter go hand in hand, and a lot of my doctoral findings had to do with living situations. Again, what could be more applicable to the real world than the challenges of not having a stable place to live, or living in a neighbourhood where you feel discriminated against, or not having a roof over your head at all? Of course, research is most “applicable” when the findings lead somewhere useful to the people involved in the study, and we really hope that the PLPH findings can inform and help implement changes to housing policy regionally and provincially. Ideally, policy changes could lead to better, more stable, and more appropriate housing for people living with HIV.
3. How is the community involved in your research?
Positive Living, Positive Homes is a community-based study, and people from all over the province (but particularly from the three research sites – Prince George, Vancouver, and Kamloops) have been involved since the beginning. Community partners include people who work at ASOs or community-based organizations (CBOs) and or housing service organizations, policy makers, and most importantly, people who are living with HIV. In 2013, the project was awarded an Operating Grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), based on a proposal co-developed by this very diverse team. They were instrumental in creating the project as it looks today by bringing their experience with HIV and housing to the table, and telling the core research team which questions were important to ask, how to ask them, where to ask them, who to ask, and so on.
The community is involved at each step of the research process, from the study design, to the implementation of data collection, to analysis and dissemination of findings. Without input and assistance from community partners and consultants, this study wouldn’t have ever gone ahead.
4. If you had unlimited funds, which areas of research would you invest in?
Well, that’s a tough question, because there are so many social and environmental problems that we face these days and not only are they all important to address, but they’re all interconnected. I think that maybe the best way to move society in a healthy direction is to invest in research on sustainability, because without having a foundation of sustainable living, we end up using our money and resources inappropriately, often in ways that are very damaging to ourselves and the earth.
That’s so much easier said than done, though. Humans like things to be easy, cheap, and efficient, and I don’t think that a world where everyone has equal opportunity to be happy and healthy is going to come easily. It’s going to require sacrifice and massive change to our mindset, our expectations, and our laziness. After we shift that, maybe we can change the way we actually do things.
5. If you were able to choose, what is the natural talent you’d like to be gifted with and why?
Wow, there are so many things I’d love to be able to do! I guess I’d have to choose being a great singer/songwriter. Sometimes I have dreams where I’m belting out a song in a great voice, not necessarily with anyone around, just on my own, but it feels so amazing. Then I wake up. But I also think that to perform in front of a huge stadium full of people who are singing along with you, to a song you also wrote – that would be an incredible experience.