By Yasmine Elmir
Lashanda Skerritt, PhD candidate in the Department of Family Medicine, is among the latest cohort of Vanier Canada Scholars. The award is Canada’s most prestigious for doctoral students. Vanier Scholars demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and/or humanities, natural sciences and/or engineering and health. Lashanda’s doctoral research aims to produce evidence to support high-quality reproductive healthcare for women living with HIV. Her work is supervised by Dr. Alexandra de Pokomandy, Research Co-Director and Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Dr. Angela Kaida, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Perspectives in HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
“The PhD program in Family Medicine and Primary Care provides a foundation for research trainees to study the complex social and structural contexts in which health services are delivered,” says Lashanda. “I was drawn to the program because of the opportunity to learn from a community of researchers with different methodological and disciplinary expertise. Through courses and seminars, I have had my theoretical and epistemological perspectives as a researcher challenged and have learned a range of research methods and approaches. For my doctoral research, I am applying innovative approaches to the analysis of epidemiological data. The program is a place where I can explore and develop these innovative approaches and I have felt encouraged to do so at every step of my training.”
With advances in treatment, HIV is no longer a death sentence. “People are living longer, healthier lives with HIV compared to the early years of the epidemic. This has led to a shift in the reproductive health needs of people living with HIV, particularly women,” explains Lashanda, who was drawn to the field of HIV because if its rich history of activism. HIV positive women, who make up nearly a quarter of the people living with HIV in Canada today and over half of the people living with HIV around the world, have similar reproductive desires to HIV negative women. Medical and scientific advancements have been made, but healthcare practices have lagged behind. To improve reproductive healthcare, Lashanda’s research aims to understand the existing gaps in care and how to address them. This work draws on data from 1,422 women living with HIV enrolled in CHIWOS, a Canadian study designed by, for and with women living with HIV. Integrating women’s perspectives throughout the analyses, Lashanda is examining whether women discuss their reproductive goals with their healthcare providers and how women prioritize their reproductive healthcare among other aspects of their HIV care. Results will support evidence-based recommendations to deliver care that meets the needs and priorities of women living with HIV in Canada.
“I am constantly reminded that community involvement and advocacy are important drivers of scientific and medical knowledge,” adds Lashanda. “Not only am I learning about patient engagement and patient-oriented research, but I am putting those approaches into practice in my doctoral research. I also have the privilege of being part of a research team that includes women with lived experiences with HIV, healthcare providers and epidemiologists. This amalgamation of different types of valuable expertise provides an incredibly enriching environment for me to build the foundation of my future research career.”
Outside of her doctoral studies, Lashanda is also involved in diversity and equity initiatives in health professions and physician-scientist training programs. “Being selected as a Vanier Scholar is an honour. The award, for me, is not only a recognition of my abilities and potential as a researcher but also an affirmation of my belonging in academia,” says Lashanda. “Recent events have reminded us that systemic racism is prevalent throughout society and academia is no exception. Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and women face unique barriers to career advancement. These voices are incredibly important in academic research but are often underrepresented. I hope that in joining the prestigious cohort of Vanier Canada Graduate Scholars, I am able to encourage anyone doubting whether academia is an environment in which they can thrive, that not only do they belong here, but their voices are needed.” Congratulations Lashanda!