Black History Month: Spotlight on Gina Wingood, ScD, MPH

February 12, 2020
Gina Wingood
Gina Wingood. Image: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

While pursuing her education as a geneticist, Gina Wingood, ScD, MPH, witnessed the early days of the AIDS epidemic and changed fields to help address it. Her work has since focused on the unique risks women face from HIV, and her intervention programs have been endorsed by the CDC and implemented across the country. 

Wingood is the Sidney and Helaine Lerner Professor of Public Health Promotion and director of the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. Before joining Columbia in 2015, she spent 18 years at Emory University where she was professor of behavioral sciences and health education. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

How did you become interested in public health and HIV?

My father was a chemist and a strong advocate of my brother, my sister, and myself pursuing careers in science. After majoring in biology as an undergraduate, I went to UC Berkeley for my master's in genetics. As a young adult, I was living in San Francisco in the early 90s. And of course, at that time the HIV epidemic was breaking out. 

There was just a tremendous amount of advocacy and vibrancy around the social justice activities associated with fighting this epidemic, and to me that was just so thrilling. So, I switched fields and I went into the field of public health.

 

You’re well-known for designing practical interventions to reduce HIV risk in women. How did that develop?

Most of the research in the early epidemic focused on white gay men at risk of HIV. While women were also at risk of HIV early in the epidemic, no interventions were being developed to reduce women’s vulnerability. Given my interest in women’s issues, I designed HIV interventions for young adult women, adolescent females, and HIV serodiscordant couples; and I focused on ethnic minority women in the United States, primarily African American and Latinx women.   

Since my interventions had demonstrated efficacy in reducing incident STIs, CDC defined these programs as evidence-based interventions. Subsequently, CDC scaled up my interventions nationally. Additionally, the interventions were adapted globally to enhance their relevance for women at risk of HIV worldwide.

 

At Columbia, you created and direct the Health Communications Certificate program. Did your interest in this area stem from your HIV research?

The widespread dissemination of my interventions was fueled by various health communication interventions and described as a social movement. Mass media, policy communications, and community mobilizations greatly facilitated the adoption of my interventions and demonstrated to me the powerful role of health communications.

Given this experience, I have a great appreciation for the role of media, whether it is traditional media, data visualizations, digital media, or storytelling, in enhancing how we communicate and disseminate the science of public health to diverse audiences.