Meet the Scholars: Kristefer Stojanovski
Kristefer Stojanovski is a PhD candidate in health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan. He is part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2016.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.
I am Kristefer Stojanovski. I am an avid reader of fiction novels. I am a yogi (those who practice yoga religiously) and a scholar activist. I am a first-generation American and college graduate, and the only person in my family to pursue a PhD. Before starting my PhD program, I was living in the Bay Area in California, evaluating numerous county criminal justice and mental health reform programs and policies throughout the state. I also like to spend time in the desert at the magical arts, music, and cultural experience called Burning Man. It’s a beautiful culture of inclusion in life-affirming and giving ways.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
It all starts from when I was a child. I grew up in a traumatic household, which really shaped how I viewed the world. No child should have to go through these things, and yet they still do all over the world. Then, as I became comfortable with my sexuality as a gay man, I got more interested in issues related to the health of LGBTQ+ people. I studied abroad and became interested in global cultural and health issues. I started taking classes in public health. The most pivotal classes were on health and human rights, and on the structural drivers of poor health. From those classes, I began to realize how much of what is discussed as unfair in the United States is similar to what’s occurring elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is all too often those whose voices are suppressed who must live through the brunt of the garbage the world throws at them. There is not a day goes by that I don’t think, “The world does not have to be this way!”
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.
Well, right now I am focused on completing my dissertation. While it is daunting, I am absolutely enjoying the process. I am enjoying it so much because it really focuses on understanding the root causes of poor health. My dissertation aims to understand how gay and bisexual men experience stigma in all aspects of their life, and how this stigma influences their behaviors in ways that cause them to experience disproportionately higher HIV risk and infection. While stigma and HIV have been studied extensively, my research utilizes novel approaches such as complex systems theory and computational modeling. These methods allow me to better understand how stigma perpetuates and creates numerous pathways in which sexual minority men disproportionately experience more HIV infection.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
We have all the tools necessary to eradicate HIV from the world. We know that people living with HIV who are on regular treatment become undetectable (i.e., the virus cannot be detected in their blood). We now know that those who are undetectable do not transmit HIV. We also know that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill that protects against HIV (kind of like birth control), can reduce the risk of infection to nearly zero. Yet people are still becoming infected, and sexual minority men are experiencing the worst of it – particularly queer men of color.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
This is such a difficult question, there are so many great researchers. I also believe there are many awesome organizers and community activists who are getting their hands dirty every day working to make their communities better. So, I think the people I most admire are those who are out there, every day, in the trenches fighting for their communities.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
The HPRS program has been instrumental in developing me as a scholar, researcher, and activist. I cannot be more thankful for the support and training from the program. One way that it has helped shaped me is through making me a better leader. All too often in PhD programs, we do not receive leadership and professional development. So I am so grateful for the third year of the program where we spent the 12 months receiving leadership development and coaching.
In the HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
If I used my research to change any policy, it would be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Right now, the policy allows for too much leeway for providers offering this preventive medication to their patients. The policy predominantly focuses on assessing patients’ sexual behaviors as the requirement for prescription. However, using only sexual behaviors as the criteria leaves out a huge swath of the U.S. population most at risk: black queer men. What we see from the research is that black queer men actually use condoms more, have fewer sexual partners, and use fewer drugs. According to the guidelines, this would make them ineligible for PrEP. These guidelines must change to ensure all people who are at risk will receive appropriate guidance and medication from providers.
OK, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you had a talk show, who would your first three guests be?
If I had a talk show, I would have Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who is so inspiring and truly comprehends the crisis we are facing because of climate change. I would also love to have a discussion with the Squad (I know it is technically four people)—Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar—because they are talking about the issues the world and Americans are facing exactly how we should have been talking about them for decades now! Oh, and also, Elizabeth Warren, because well…she has a plan!