Think “basic science” and what comes to mind? Labs, white coats, painstaking analysis of extremely small cellular samples. For Courtney Bell, however, conducting basic science has immersed her firmly in the community – and it’s a place she likes to be.
Courtney, who holds the CAHR/Gilead Sciences Master’s Scholarship in HIV Research and is studying for her degree at the University of Manitoba, wanted to focus her research on understanding why HIV appears to be more common and progresses faster in Manitoba’s Aboriginal population. Courtney, who is herself Métis, chose to focus on solvent users, her hypothesis being that solvent use is associated with both biological and social factors that contribute to increased HIV risk and rapid disease progression. The problem was solvent use is an under-studied area relative to HIV and such studies that have been done do not focus on the impact of solvent use on the immune system.
That is one problem. The other problem was how to find a cohort of substance users to participate in her research. That is where the community part of her research comes in.
“How do you bring together a community that isn’t really a community?” Courtney asked.
She found the answer to her question in Sunshine House, a community-based resource centre for the marginalized, homeless drug using community in Winnipeg. There she joined the community, spending time there, eating dinners there and seeking the input and participation of substance users as partners in the research. Over the course of dinners and focus groups, Bell sought input on how best to structure the research and how to use the results to help the community. She slowly built up a level of acceptance for her research.
“My approach was very gentle,” Courtney says. “There was a lot of shyness and nervousness at the table. But people were very eager and keen to participate.”
Now, with the agreement of participants established, Courtney plans to obtain and analyze blood samples to see if solvent use leads to increased immune activation due to damage to the mucosal lining of the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
Courtney’s supervisor, Dr. Keith Fowke, is impressed with her commitment to the community and the way it is enriching her basic science research.
“She’s really empathetic, genuinely concerned about people,” he says. “She’s got the whole package. Scientifically, she’s doing very well and she’s taking a step beyond being a researcher to step up for people.”
As for Courtney, she is grateful for the support she has received from CAHR and from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research through its Network Environments for Aboriginal Health Research and its Universities Without Walls fellowship program. But Courtney, who now sits on the Board of Directors of Sunshine House and helps with grant writing, has changed her direction after her work with the solvent use community. While originally she thought of a career in research, she’s now decided instead to go to medical school.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time in research but working with the community has sparked a side of me I didn’t expect,” she says. “I have liked working with people, learning about their lives.”