By Laura Donnelly-Smith
Lisa Bowleg, a professor of psychology, might be newly hired to the Department of Psychology, but she’s not new to George Washington University. Dr. Bowleg began her career at GW as a research analyst in the late 1980s and went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from the university. After gaining career experience at several other universities and organizations, Dr. Bowleg said she is thrilled to be back at GW.
“It really feels like a homecoming for me,” she said.
Dr. Bowleg’s area of specialization is applied social psychology. With a background in qualitative, quantitative and mixed research methods, as well as women’s studies, she is currently working on several projects to investigate and develop effective HIV prevention strategies. Her interest in HIV prevention started when she worked at GW as a state HIV/AIDS policy analyst, right after she graduated from college.
“When I came to GW in 1988 as an HIV policy analyst, we were just starting to think about the populations that were excluded in HIV legislation, or were treated in stereotypical ways,” she said. “For example, women were viewed as vectors of HIV transmission to their babies, and the focus was on prostitutes and sex workers.”
The experience she gained in that first job prompted her to complete the first of her graduate degrees at GW: a master’s degree in public policy with a concentration in women’s studies. This degree fostered her interest in qualitative research methods and feminist theory.
“I always say that women’s studies is where you really learn how to think critically about research and methods,” she said.
Bitten by the research bug, she began a GW Ph.D. program in applied social psychology. “Several of the professors were getting into HIV research, and that’s where I got a firm background in HIV prevention theory and research,” she said. “Everything that happened in that program set the stage for what came next for me.”
What came next was a career focused on both qualitative and quantitative research on HIV prevention in black communities. In her most recent position, as an associate professor of community health and prevention at Drexel University, she began investigating strategies to help prevent HIV among black men—a population that is vastly overrepresented among U.S. HIV demographics. She has been the principal investigator of three National Institutes of Health grants. The two most recent five-year grants from the National Institutes of Mental Health, each for more than $3 million, will be the focus of her work at GW.
“I really wanted to be a member of the District of Columbia Developmental Center for AIDS Research (DC-DCFAR) based at GW,” Dr. Bowleg said. “[DC-DCFAR’s] behavioral science core is located in the psychology department. I’ve always wanted to collaborate with colleagues doing HIV prevention work within my own department, right down the hall. This move was fantastic for me.”
For one NIH grant, Dr. Bowleg will work, with a co-principal investigator from the University of California-San Diego, to see if an HIV prevention intervention for heterosexual black men who are unemployed or are unstably housed can be embedded in other social programs that serve this population. That can include food or job assistance programs, she said—not just health care programs. She is working to find a community partner organization to help run her study.
“You want to be able to train people in lots of non-health, non-HIV organizations to be able to provide HIV prevention services within their ongoing work,” she said.
For the other grant, Dr. Bowleg will investigate the individual and neighborhood-level stressors such as unemployment and poverty that increase black men’s HIV risk, and the resilience factors that protect these men from HIV—things like social support networks or particular characteristics of a neighborhood.
“What are the strengths at the individual and neighborhood levels that protect black men from HIV risk? We don’t know much about it. Do you need a neighbor who everyone respects, who looks out for people? Is it having a neighborhood basketball court? That’s what I’m interested in finding out.”
In addition to her research, Dr. Bowleg will teach a graduate-level qualitative research methods class. And in her spare time, she’s looking forward to running on the National Mall and sampling food from each of the food trucks that park, conveniently, right outside her office building.
“I may be developing an unhealthy relationship with the food trucks,” she joked. “I had the best lunch today!”
Though she’s only been at GW since the new year, Dr. Bowleg said she’s excited to have already met many engaged psychology graduate students who are deeply committed to research. Helping develop the next generation of scholars is an important part of her work, she said.
“I’m thrilled to able to use the foundation I got at GW and in the psychology department to attempt to come up with innovative and transformative behavioral research solutions to deal with the health and social problems that black communities face,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be able to use those skills to have an applied impact.”