True detective: Danielle Armstrong

Student seeks answers to why some individuals shy away from HIV testing

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For Danielle Armstrong, conducting data collection and crunching the numbers is not the fun part of research. Instead, studying why people behave the way they do is what she enjoys. Her research could help save lives by showing how to encourage people to utilize resources already widely — and sometimes freely — available.

Armstrong, a senior majoring in psychology in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, has been working with the Raise 5 Project and the Fan Free Clinic to engage with African-American college students about their attitudes toward HIV testing. Attributes studied included gender, religiosity and sexual orientation and were correlated to that person’s attitude and behavior toward testing. Through data collection and studying behaviors, Armstrong hopes to understand why some people do — or don’t — get tested for HIV.

“I’ve learned what it takes to do research, from start to finish,” Armstrong said.

Organizations such as Raise 5 and the Fan Free Clinic offer resources such as information sessions, intervention recruitment and free oral HIV screening to students and members of the Richmond community. These organizations aid efforts to reach out to those affected and lead them to the information or assistance they need. However, many at-risk or infected individuals choose to ignore or simply turn away from testing or assistance.

Armstrong hopes her research will identify reasons behind this phenomenon in order to improve prevention and increase education about HIV.

While retrieving data for a project like this may be a grinding task, the statistics and correlations she develops could display which attitudes play a role in HIV testing and what can be done to fix them. And Armstrong’s desire to help people fuels her research and data collection.

Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, works with community organizations, schools and institutions to research and promote the well-being of African-American youth. Belgrave oversees the undergraduate research program through which Armstrong conducted her study, and her career has been composed of collaborative efforts on research to help educate and strengthen the community.

“Research with undergraduates not only contributes to the professional development of students but also to their faculty mentors,” Belgrave said. “It keeps us abreast of the interests and perspectives of students and the topics they are interested in exploring in greater detail.”

Involvement in research is important for undergraduates, especially if they seek a graduate education, said Josh Brevard, a graduate research assistant for the psychology department who helped mentor and oversee Armstrong’s research effort.

“Sometimes your name can get striked off the list if you haven’t done any research,” Brevard said.

Conducting research in a specific field allows students to submerse themselves in their field of study and find out if they have a true passion for the work, Brevard said. Many times, students have a preconceived idea about a certain field, choosing to imagine the more glamorous aspects of the job rather than emphasizing the importance of the work that goes into getting to the results. By doing research, students can find out if what they have spent years studying will turn into a passion for the rest of their lives. Specific to psychology, conducting research allows students to have an accurate perception of what it takes to properly conduct research and draw conclusions, and of the defined techniques used by clinical psychologists.

Armstrong said that being a part of the team of researchers and learning about data collection allowed her to confirm her strong interest in the field.

And as Brevard said, “Getting thrown into the fire is sometimes the only real way of knowing what that passion is.”


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