NC State professor uses students, Twitter to impact HIV prevention change

Posted January 1, 2013 6:30 p.m. EST
Updated March 17, 2013 3:47 p.m. EDT

— A mother of two and an avid African-American health supporter, Fay Cobb Payton said she never dreamed of doing the work she is doing now.

Payton is the founder and director of the My Health Impact Network initiative. Also known as myHIN, its goal is to promote HIV and AIDS prevention and health care information among black female college students. She said a "for-students-by students" approach is what young people want, to improve their health lifestyles.

"The idea is to get young people engaged in shaping the message and driving the message. It resonates from a place where it is peer-to-peer learning," Payton said. "So, shaping that message, particularly in social media, the blogosphere, and getting promotion out, they [students] are a part of that."

The idea of a health promotion network came from a conversation Payton had with a former student.

“I thought that student was coming to talk to me about her career options. What that student came to talk to me about was that she was exposed to HIV through a partner, and that hit home for me,” Payton said. “I was certainty not expecting that.”

Project started with many players

According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control HIV/AIDS report, African-American women accounted for 29 percent of the estimated new HIV infections in their race. 

Payton said she felt one main challenge black women face is stigma about HIV information from health care providers, family and peers within their social networks.

As an associate professor of information systems at North Carolina State University for 15 years, Payton said she always had an interest in health care.

Her résumé includes a laundry list of research specialties, such as health care, information technology and disparities and STEM issues. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math topics in academia. Payton’s work has appeared in the European Journal of Information Systems and the International Encyclopedia of the Sciences.

An Augusta, Ga., native, and a product of teenage parents, Payton said she was not always sure of what she would be doing.

"I had no sense that I would be sitting here now. My dream was to be a professional dancer. I wanted to be a ballerina," Payton said.

She said her parents emphasized the importance of getting an education, citing them as the main reason why she is in academia.

"What my father gave me was street smarts.I can read people. That’s probably the most valuable soft skill. My parents gave me a strong foundation," Payton noted.

The myHIN idea started in 2006 with Payton and a former colleague. Now, Payton collaborates with two research professors, known as co-principal investigators.

“I’m really striving for My Health Impact to be a vehicle that will enable young people to make informed health care decisions,” Payton noted.

Lynette Kvasny is an associate professor of information science at Pennsylvania State University. She met Payton 15 years ago and said she wanted to use her talents in communication and information technology in this project. 

"I thought about how I could use these resources to disseminate HIV prevention information. I wanted to work particularly with black women in college, because I have access to them, and I feel like I'm a role model for them," Kvasny said. "They don't get to see many black women professors in their college careers, so perhaps I can connect with them in ways that go beyond this project."

Initially, Payton faced resistance to her idea. She mentioned that a reviewer of her grant proposal didn’t think myHIN fit with her professional role.

“One of the things I found was that there was a pushback. What does this have to do with the school of business? Where is the return on investment?” Payton said. “Not everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, and I still don’t think everyone is, but, that’s OK.”

Now, funded by the National Science Foundation, Payton is working on other sources for money and said it wasn’t early to jump start the idea.

“Finding the funding to make it happen, to make sure that it could be sustainable was the most challenging part,” Payton said.

Payton gains student involvement 

Payton’s team also includes student research scholars, consultants and graduate students. She stressed the importance of myHIN being a student-run initiative.

KaMar Galloway, 23, a senior computer science major at N.C. State is one of the branders for the myHIN website and talked about the importance of the overall site look and language for users. 

"I branded the user-experience for the website," Galloway said. "Identifying what colors and testimonials versus statistics are good for the user, so that the user is not bombarded with scientific jargon."

Galloway said that videos were the best way to promote testimonials because followers can identify with a video and feel comfortable with the person talking online about HIV.

MyHIN is set to launch a mobile application in May, also created by senior student researcher Khiry Arnold.

“An app might give an optimized experience for the My Health Impact Network and can add permanence to the branding,” Arnold said.

He said the app will reach more people than the desktop website.

“In today’s society, everything is going mobile. You’re seeing trends where virtually every company is going mobile because it’s a better way to target individuals and an efficient and optimized experience for people,” Arnold added.

Payton said she conducts focus group meetings once every two months to improve the site as well as gain insight from student voices. The focus group consists of only black female N.C. State students.

Kathy Hamilton Gore, 57, is the consultant of myHIN and said focus group participants are asked to refer other African-American women, who are N.C. State students, for later group meetings.

Chasity Holt, 23, a computer and electrical engineering major attends the group meetings and said she has a family member who was impacted by HIV.

“The room usually starts off somewhat tense, but it doesn't take long for Dr. Payton to change that,” Holt said.

She mentioned that focus groups allow for people to talk about subjects they don’t normally talk about.

“We discuss some of the stereotypes associated with HIV/AIDS, different physical and mental health conditions that are prevalent within the African-American community and how we interact with one another,” Holt said.

Khiry Arnold said he also utilizes the focus group to test his work.

“To ensure that everything will be useable by the user, we make sure everything looks to their preference and is something they would enjoy utilizing, so any changes that can be made, will be made,” he said.

Khalia Braswell, 23, is a graduating senior computer science major and mentee of Payton.

Braswell mans the @myhealthimpact Twitter account and mentioned the benefits of using twitter instead of other social networks.

“I’m a fan of less is more. We don’t need every social platform to expand the message. With Twitter, people are on it all the time,” Braswell stated. “We can put out facts and information and people can go and click on those links and get to that information without anybody knowing  it.”