Second Century Initiative (2CI) Fellow and Ph.D. candidate Krishna Kiran Kota has returned from India after completing a 1-year research project as part of a global health research fellowship funded by Fogarty International Center, a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH).
Kota, from Hyderabad, India, began his college career at Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University where he received his Bachelor’s of Technology degree in Biotechnology. He came to the United States to attend Georgetown University where he received his master’s degree in biotechnology. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Health at Georgia State.
Originally pursuing degrees and career in biotechnology, Kota discovered that he was more passionate about public health while he was working in the Epidemiological Genetics Lab at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. The desire to really make a difference in the lives of others fueled his decision to make a career switch.
“When you work in a lab, there’s this feeling that maybe in 10 to 15 years your research may be applied and translated; however, with public health, the application or translation of your research into the real-world is more evident,” Kota said. “You’re really working with people that you want to make a difference or change for and that really inspired me.”
After deciding to make the career switch, Kota began to search for public health doctorate programs, but most programs required a previous master’s degree in public health. Since he came from a biotechnology background, neither of his degrees were in public health. Georgia State, however, offered a solution.
“It showed me they value the diversity and skills that I bring with my basic science background” said Kota.
Kota participated in an international research study that involves discovering the sociological risk factors that put transgender women and men who have sex with men (MSM) at higher risk for HIV in Atlanta and India.
In Atlanta, Kota is working with his Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Laura Salazar to understand how these factors can increase the risk of HIV infection among transgender women. They collected saliva samples of transgender women to measure their biomarkers, which are measurable indicators of health outcomes.
They’re attempting to understand what psychosocial factors may be associated with the biomarkers of the transgender women. In addition to collecting saliva samples, the study team also conducted field research to gather different information from the groups they are studying.
“We’re trying to examine the mechanisms between biological and social factors. So, in addition to the biological aspect of the study, we conducted a quantitative survey where we asked transgender women about their experiences,” said Kota. “We went to different parts of Atlanta, like homeless shelters, support groups for transgender women, and clubs, to collect the data.”
The NIH fellowship also required Kota to conduct research in a lower middle-income country for a year and collaborate with a researcher who is interested in similar research, in the country that he chose to do his international study, India. His mentor in India is Dr. Sahay of the National AIDS Research Institute (NARI) in Pune, India. Together, they continued the research started in Atlanta and applied it to the transgender women and MSM men populations in India.
“We are trying to understand, in India, the syndemics of mental health issues, substance abuse, and various forms of violence. How is the combination of psycho social factors putting transgender women and MSM men at higher risk for HIV in India?” Kota said. “What I really find fascinating is that there’s so much research going on in India regarding this population; however, the factors we are studying aren’t direct risk factors. They are distal factors that we believe are fundamental to the increased vulnerability of these subpopulations.”
Kota said that he has always found HIV to be a very interesting disease because of the complex ways that a person could be exposed to the virus.
“It’s not just the biological factors that always causes HIV and I think that’s what makes it so interesting. It’s about how certain groups, your place in society, or where you are currently in your life, and how those factors come together and ultimately places you in a spot or situation where you are considered at high risk to contract HIV,” he said. “Generally speaking if you don’t have unprotected sex with an infected person or not come in contact with infected blood, then you’re not supposed to contract HIV but things are not so simple. HIV transmits during the most intimate and vulnerable moments, and behaviors that are stigmatized, discriminated, and criminalized. Factors such as sexual identity, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and structural factors come into play and put you at high risk.”
Kota said the 2CI fellowship supported him in ways other than financially.
“There was financial support, but I think the 2CI fellowship helped me the most by allowing me to conduct the research that I wanted to conduct,” said Kota. “For two years, 2CI helped me conduct the research that I always wanted to do. There’s no restriction on what you can do. It’s entirely up to you and that freedom really helped me grow as a researcher.”
After he earns his Ph.D., Kota plans to become an independent researcher to conduct research with MSM, transgender women, and other high-risk groups for HIV, both in the U.S. and global settings. He would also like to teach his research to other students so that there’s an opportunity for someone to continue the research that he has started.
– Kiana Colquitt, Graduate Administrative Assistant, Office of the Provost