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School of Public Health has two RETI Fellows

The Fordham University program trains early career faculty in HIV research ethics
SPH faculty members Ben Montemayor and Chris Owens

Ben Montemayor, PhD, is the latest Texas A&M University School of Public Health faculty member to be awarded a research fellowship from Fordham University’s HIV and Drug Abuse Prevention Research Ethics Training Institute (RETI). He joins Chris Owens, PhD, MPH, who is in the second year of the two-year program.

RETI was launched 10 years ago and is the only such program in the country that provides early career investigators in public health and related fields with training in the ethics related to empirical HIV and drug abuse research. Its mission is to help meet the significant need for investigators who work with communities at risk of substance abuse and HIV to conduct research that informs best practices and policies.

Five or six Fellows are chosen each year, and they attend a 10-day summer program at RETI and get funding for research on ethical issues related to substance abuse or HIV. Funding is provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Scientists are trained in research ethics, of course, but it is often at the administrative level, covering topics like confidentiality or anonymous protocols, data storage security protocols, minimal risk research, and so on,” Owens said. “On the other hand, RETI trains scientists to think more critically about ethics at every level.”

Montemayor, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior, has a background in alcohol, tobacco and other drugs research and quantitative research methodology.

For his RETI research project, he plans to study how university students who are at high risk of substance use disorders perceive the risks and benefits of participating in substance use research, as well as how these students respond if they unexpectedly find out that they are at risk for a substance use disorder. He also will research the responsibilities that researchers and universities perceive in identifying and supporting high-risk individuals.

“Public health researchers rely on evidence-based screening tools that often reveal risky behaviors that raise concerns beyond the realm of research,” he said. “I hope to explore the ethical responsibilities of researchers and how they can discern the boundaries between research and a potentially needed intervention.”

Owens, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior, studies rural HIV prevention and care, rural LGBTQ adolescent and adult health, and LGBTQ adolescent HIV prevention.

His RETI research examines the perceived benefits, perceived risks and preferences for an HIV prevention, testing and care app (mobile health or mhealth) for rural gay and bisexual men in Texas, as well as the app’s protocols (such as referral to resource protocols).

“Most HIV mhealth apps are designed for, pilot tested on, and implemented with gay and bisexual men who live in large metropolitan cities,” he said. “However, rural gay and bisexual men face elevated and different challenges regarding HIV, such as a lack of resources, elevated rates of HIV stigma and homophobia/biphobia, and distrust and prior negative interactions of medical and other institutions.”

As a returning Fellow, Owens said his main take-away as a RETI Fellow thus far is the need for scientists to engage the populations they work with in empirical ethics research.

“Of course, HIV and drug abuse scientists consider ethics when doing our research, but we do not ‘own’ research ethics,” he said. “The populations who participate in our studies also grapple with many deep, ethical questions about the risks and benefits of participating in research and think about solutions. Without understanding their perspectives, the research might suffer because of low participation or engagement, low retention or high attrition, not minimal risk, and so on.”

Montemayor said the summer session he attended this year as a first-year Fellow was “immersive and transformative,” and that he looks forward to the rest of the program.

“The program instilled in us the importance of stepping back and reflecting on our research practices—moving away from the tendency to pursue research for the outcome,” he said. “This training institute teaches you just that: to understand the significance of ethical considerations in all of our research projects.”

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