Alumni Spotlight: Margo Mullinax, PhD '14, MPH '11

margomulinaxprofilepic.jpgPopFam grad Margo Mullinax is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health. While earning her master’s degree at Mailman, Margo spent her practicum working on qualitative research at Rakai Health Sciences Project in Uganda. She is now working on PopFam’s Linkages study in Rakai as part of her post-doc. Before enrolling in graduate school, Margo served in the Peace Corps, working as a health educator and water and sanitation specialist in the Dominican Republic. She holds a PhD in Health Behavior from Indiana University.

I understand you currently work with PopFam’s Linkages study in Rakai. Can you tell me a bit about that project and your current role?
I am working with [PopFam Chair] Dr. Santelli in this study, which is looking at HIV and fertility intentions in Uganda, and how individuals balance living in an area of high HIV prevalence with the desire to be sexual and reproductive beings. I love working on the Linkages project because it is a really unique data set that focuses not just on men and women separately, but on couples. The team is using both qualitative and quantitative data to examine couple-level influences on sexual and reproductive health outcomes. I arrived at a great time; [PopFam Assistant Professor] Dr. Mathur was finalizing the interview guide for data collection in the field. We are already collecting interviews. My true love is qualitative research, and it has been great to work with Dr. Mathur and to spend time thinking about the best ways to examine complicated aspects of people’s lives. 

I have also enjoyed working with the qualitative team in Rakai to develop their qualitative research skills, while they teach me about cross-cultural data collection. In addition to the qualitative work, I have been sitting in on team meetings to discuss quantitative data from the project. Let me just say, there are some interesting quantitative findings about to be published, so keep a look out!

Can you tell me about your own research interests?
I am very interested in understanding how interpersonal and contextual dynamics influence sexual decision making, including contraceptive use and efforts to protect against HIV infection. Much of my current research has been looking at emerging adult women—how they decide to have sex or not with a particular partner and whether to engage in what we consider to be protective behaviors (like condom use or STI testing). For my dissertation, I conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with sexually active, heterosexual, emerging adult women in Indiana. I focused on emerging adult women, ages 18-25, because of the high burden of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in this age group.

I understand you did your practicum research at the Rakai Health Sciences Program while pursuing your MPH. Can you tell me about your role and work?
One of the reasons I wanted to be at Columbia was because I knew they had amazing opportunities to do research abroad. I went to Rakai where I was able see a major international research project in action and to learn about the project’s amazing blending of research and services. I ended up helping evaluate a domestic violence project. This study had used an intervention called “safe homes and respect for everyone,” or SHARE, to investigate perceptions of gender equality. I helped analyze the qualitative data evaluating the program.

What did the study find?
It showed that men and women generally agree that women lack basic rights, but it also highlighted widespread disagreement about the meanings of gender equality and showed how complicated it is to address these issues. Both women and men respondents exhibited widespread uneasiness about the consequences of shifts in traditional gender norms and how such changes might worsen family life. Overall, respondents were neither content with the state of gender roles and ideals in their lives, nor with the tools available for them to orient towards gender in new ways. This research reinforced for me that efforts to increase women’s rights must occur in conjunction with community-based work on understandings of gender equality.

I read in your bio that you seek to bring a feminist and critical inquiry framework to your research. What does that mean?
I am interested in using research methods that are able to empower participatory and feminist methodology and critical inquiry. This is typically applied in qualitative methodology and concerns how you collect and analyze data.  A big part of it is having the participant be more engaged in the research processes and ensuring that they are concretely benefitting from participation in research….We are touching people’s lives, and this could be a really great opportunity for mobilizing change.

How did you become interested in public health? And how did you end up at Mailman?
I was at UNC Chapel Hill and I had never heard of public health. My undergrad major was international studies. I was interested in traveling and working abroad. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina in a family of educators…and I debated whether I wanted to go into teaching. [Then] I went to Malawi as an undergrad. I was doing HIV education and thinking of myself as an educator. I learned so much about how important health is, how it is a prerequisite for any quality of life, and also for things like even being able to attend school and receive an education. It was in Malawi that I was converted to the field of public health.

What was most helpful to you at Mailman?
The practical opportunities were really important to me. One of the things that drew me to Mailman was the recognition of the sexuality [component] of sexual and reproductive health. The course work was also amazing and expanded and challenged my worldview in a way that had not occurred before.