Kirsten Paulus
Kirsten Paulus

Kirsten Paulus, a second-year PhD student in social and behavioral sciences, has won the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s Health Decision Making SIG Student/Trainee Abstract Award. This national award recognizes exceptional abstracts that lend significant contributions to the fields of health decision-making and behavioral science.

Paulus’s research examines how women who inject drugs understand pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medicine found to reduce the chances of contracting HIV. She won for her abstract titled "The relationship of PrEP beliefs to perceived personal, interpersonal and structural benefits and barriers to PrEP use in women who inject drugs".

“Only 10% of women who could benefit from PrEP are currently using it,” says Paulus. “There’s something we’re not understanding. We need to better understand their decision-making process so that we don’t just keep putting our energy into improving their knowledge of, and access to, PrEP. A lot of the time they already have those things, but there are other barriers that we don’t know about until a project like this.”

Paulus surveyed 100 women at a North Philadelphia needle exchange program to determine why those who had access to PrEP were not using it. She found that barriers, such as fear of reprisal from a partner, potential theft, or feeling they “might get HIV anyway,” were often cited as reasons not to use PrEP by participants. Paulus says that “these results have the potential to improve accurate communication about HIV risk and PrEP, as well as inform intervention development to increase PrEP uptake among women who inject drugs.”

Paulus worked on this project as a research assistant in Temple’s Risk Communication Lab, where she works under associate professor of social and behavioral sciences Sarah Bauerle Bass.

Bass says that Paulus’s work has “significantly increased our understanding of how women who inject drugs might be feeling, or understanding, the benefits of using PrEP, and how that might impact their use of this important HIV preventative. Her understanding of the population and ability to think about what the data means in the real world are invaluable, and an example of her potential as an independent researcher. I'm not surprised that the Society of Behavioral Medicine saw this as well."

Paulus holds a BA in global studies and sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MPH in community health and preventive medicine from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.