Theo Sandfort, Ph.D., is HPTN 075 protocol chair and professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He is trained as a social psychologist in the Netherlands, where he was chair of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Department at Utrecht University. In 2001, Theo moved to New York and joined the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies. The focus of his research is on sexual orientation, gender diversity and health. At the Center, he also directs the NIH postdoctoral training program ‘Behavioral Sciences Research in HIV Infection’.
How did you first get involved with the HPTN?
It is all thanks to Sten Vermund, an amazingly supportive person. I wanted to expand my research among men who have sex with men (MSM) in South Africa to other sub-Saharan countries. When Sten invited me to join HPTN’s MSM Working Group I welcomed the opportunity. And it all worked out! There is tremendous trust and support from HPTN leadership!
What do you find most challenging about the work you do in support of the HPTN?
It feels like you’re a captain on a large ship. You try to keep it going in the right direction, but there are many forces you have little control over. After data collection was completed on HPTN 075, my challenge has been to get the results out, and working together with the study sites, that is going quite well!
What do you think will change about HIV prevention over the next five years?
We will make progress with biomedical prevention, but I expect to see a growing acknowledgment of the importance of social and behavioral factors. Mental health affects all gaps in the HIV prevention and care cascade. Without incorporating social factors, the effects of prevention treatment will be limited. Among MSM and transgender women in Africa, we cannot ignore the homophobic circumstances in which they live, and the mental health impact thereof.
What do you wish other people knew about your work?
In terms of HPTN 075, I wish people could have witnessed the change the project brought about in the communities in which we worked. The perspectives of Community Advisory Board (CAB) members evolved from “the only thing we can do with these men is stone them” to “this is a critical public health issue, it needs our fullest support.” Nurses and MSM who initially had serious misgivings about each other eventually became best of friends. It was heartwarming to witness.
What might (someone) be surprised to know about you?
That I sang on the stage of Carnegie Hall, as part of the New York City (NYC) Gay Men’s Chorus!
What do you do when you aren't working?
I enjoy spending time with my loving husband, taking advantage of all NYC has to offer. We see a lot of theater!