UC Irvine professor Brandon Brown is spreading the word about global health.
By Katherine Tam
Every few months, UC Irvine professor Brandon Brown returns to Epicentro Salud, a gay men’s community-based clinic in Lima, Peru, to help the staff brainstorm ways to encourage local men to get tested for HIV.
The stigma around homosexuality often deters the gay community from proactively getting tested in Lima, but Brown and clinic leaders have been working to change that these last three years. With Brown’s help, the clinic landed a USAID grant in October 2011 that provided funds to train HIV counselors and bought vital clinic and laboratory equipment.
“Epicentro staff did a lot of outreach to get started. We recruited on Facebook, on the streets, at bars, and were active in the gay pride parade,” Brown said. “We’re seeing more people visiting the center than ever. It’s a big asset for gay men and transgendered individuals in Peru.”
Whether it’s battling HIV stigma in Peru, finding new tools to diagnose malaria in Thailand, or improving sanitation in Kenya, Brown has made it his mission to spotlight the importance of global health and spread the word about the myriad opportunities here and around the globe that people can make a difference.
“Global health is an exciting field and there are lots of ways to get involved,” said Brown, who teaches global health, public health ethics, honors research, and epidemiology. “It’s easy for people to be comfortable in the bubble they’re in. But even if you’re studying say math, you can still be educated on things outside your area of expertise.”
That’s why two years ago, Brown launched a new initiative to put global health on more people’s radar at UC Irvine.
The initiative, Global Health Research Education and Translation (GHREAT),brings together researchers to collaborate on projects, and encourages students to get involved in global health. GHREAT offers courses students can take to earn a global health certificate. In addition, it also offers a global health mentorship program, seminar series and global health job opportunities.
Brown leads GHREAT on his own time and does not receive a salary for it. Neither do the motivated students and faculty who collaborate with him.
So far, students who have participated in GHREAT have become involved in a variety of projects here and abroad: studying how sanitation interventions can prevent contamination of the water supply in Kenya; investigating mental health issues of Iraqi refugees; identifying perceptions of genital warts in Peru; and producing a photo series chronicling the experiences of people living with HIV.
“I don’t think I could have asked for a better mentor,” said Karen Munoz, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in public health and will seek a master’s degree in the same field this fall. “He’s always willing to help, especially when it’s a student’s passion and has to do with global health.”
Munoz credits Brown with her ability to successfully secure a grant from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program for her project, which focuses on access to health care among low-income women in Southern California for early detection of the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer.
“When we were applying for grants for our projects, he helped us revise our papers and showed us examples of his so we learned what to do,” Munoz said. “Many of us had never applied for a grant before.”
When he’s not teaching at UC Irvine or spearheading GHREAT, Brown continues to work on global health projects. In addition to weekly Skype calls, he returns to Peru during the year to continue his collaborations with Epicentro.
Jerome Galea, founder of Epicentro, said the grant Brown helped secure early on was instrumental in getting the clinic off the ground.
“Probably if it weren’t for Brandon, Epicentro would not have a clinic today,” Galea wrote via email. “I’ve worked with Brandon for about 10 years and have found myself looking for projects to do with him – even though we’re on different continents – since he’s one of those people that you know you’ll have a great work experience with.”
Brown is working simultaneously on three research projects, including a study on syphilis among gay men in Peru that could lead to better treatment. And he has partnered with a UC San Diego team to research cervical cancer prevention among female sex workers in Tijuana, Mexico.
He hopes more students will take an interest in global health, whether they choose it as their major or not. Eventually, he plans to ask the university to establish an organized research unit in global health, which would provide more funding for projects, synergize global health efforts, help support student travel, and make researchers less dependent on grants.
“Few know what’s possible in global health and how to get involved,” Brown said. “Making more people aware could mean a big difference for all of us globally.”