Featured Investigator: Typhanye V. Dyer, PhD, MPH, BS

April 2022: Typhanye V. Dyer, Ph.D., MPH, BS

Associate Professor of Epidemiology
School of Public Health, University of Maryland
Typhanye Vielka Dyer is an epidemiologist and health disparities scholar whose research examines the influence of social, psychological, and behavioral factors on STI and HIV risk in Black populations. Her work examines syndemics (intersecting psychosocial and structural barriers), including the impact of trauma, poor mental health, and criminal justice involvement on STI/HIV outcomes for Black sexual and gender minorities, as well as Black women living with HIV in the DC Metro Area.

Q: What are your current research interests?
A: My research agenda focuses on reducing HIV-related disparities among underserved communities My personal experience shapes my focus on the needs of the community first and foremost. This strong commitment informs every aspect of my work, including my program of research and my mentorship. My tradition is as an epidemiologist and health disparities scholar. I study social-structural, psychological, and behavioral factors on HIV outcomes in Black populations. I am a leading researcher in this area for Black sexual minority men (SMM) and Black women. Syndemic theory (complex, intersecting factors) guides my research to understand the experiences of Black SMM at intersections of substance misuse, trauma, mental health, criminal justice involvement, and HIV risk. The framework of intersectionalities guides my understanding of the impact of multiple stigmas on the HIV care continuum for Black women.

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?
A: I am from Compton, California. I open with this because Compton is a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles that gets a bad rap for gang violence and rampant drug use. While it is fact that these factors are prevalent in Compton and South-Central Los Angeles, it is still middle class and people aspire to become more than a statistic. I received my Bachelor's and Doctoral degrees at UCLA and my MPH at California State University, Long Beach. I did become a statistic when I had my son at the age of 19 while an undergrad at UCLA. But I was determined to reach my goals despite this fact, and also lead by example for my son. During my Ph.D. studies, I met the person who would become my husband. He was promoted to the central office (DC) for the federal government and we relocated.  I was still completing my dissertation when I realized how close Johns Hopkins was and I pursued a post-doctoral traineeship there, which I landed. It was in the Drug Dependence Epidemiology Training Program. During my time as a postdoc, I applied for two mentoring programs, one was the HIV/AIDS Translational Training Program (HATT) under Dr. Gail Wyatt, for which Dr. Steven Shoptaw was my mentor. He informed me of a new program called HPTN Scholar, to which I applied and was accepted. This changed my life!  I was connected with the top scientists in the field of HIV prevention and treatment.  I didn’t know how critical this would be to my trajectory but it was. As my mentor, Steve introduced me to colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh - Ron Stall and his team, and I wrote the first paper on syndemics among Black gay men in the MACS.  This changed my life!  It is from this manuscript that my trajectory as an expert in syndemics and HIV was hatched. I published, networked, and at the end of my postdoc wrote a diversity supplement on an R01 that examined relationship disruption for incarcerated Black men in North Carolina with Maria Khan. This changed my life!  She and I continue to collaborate and due to my work with SGM Black men, she has developed a research agenda that also focuses on SGM Black men, for which I serve both as the subject matter expert and syndemic scientist.  This diversity supplement is what brought me to the University of Maryland in 2011.  In 2013 I wrote an R03 to study syndemics in the HPTN 061 study and was funded on the first submission.  I was told to not get used to that because it is very rare.  It was during this time that I transitioned from the research track to the tenure track and I was promoted with tenure in 2019.

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?
A: There are challenges in navigating the academic space that have more to do with one’s ability to be their authentic self. In this case, it would be as a Black woman.  Whilst the academy is trying to enforce DEI, I think the “I” should be replaced with a “B” for belonging.  Inclusion is checking a box, but developing spaces where underrepresented academics feel a sense of belonging takes work and effort and an unraveling of things the “majority” holds to be true, which are typically not. Things such as one’s intellect are challenged when being authentic. Our hair and the ways we express cultural pride call into question our dedication to science as if I am less of a scientist because I wear locs or have tribal markings or some such. The fact that we can hold space to have these discussions is a move in the right direction but we have a long way to go.

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding? 
A: Find your tribe.  Faculty, staff even students who honor and respect you in the place you are at any given time.  Just starting out?  There’s space for you. Mid-career?  There’s space for you.  Develop and keep close a solid mentoring team of faculty and allies across disciplines and institutions and works spaces.  Not every mentor has to be an academic. Your mentor could be your pastor if they provide the support you need.  I have learned a lot from being a mentor.  This shapes the way I approach a lot of challenges.  If I wouldn’t tell a mentee to do it, why would I?  Eat and rest.  I am learning to engage in these very basic things in my life. There is no clocking out of academia, so make sure you engage in self-care ALWAYS!

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?
A: Develop true partnerships within the SGM community, not as consultants but as PIs.  There are plenty of seats at the table and who said they can’t be occupied by the folx we “say” we are aiming to help in dismantling systems of oppression and discrimination towards better health?  People are scholars of their own lives and experiences. Being a scholar doesn’t mean you have to have 55 letters after your name to denote expertise.  Pull folx into the research and academic sphere. You’d be surprised how much you learn just by being quiet.

Q: Who inspires you?
A: My mom.  My mom is the pillar of Black Excellence to me. Womanhood. Fierceness. She’s the original Queen in my eyes. Elegant but will verbally rip you to shreds if necessary.  Always looking out for those who don’t have a voice.  She’s my sHero! She’s always in my corner and everything I do is to make her proud.  My son is another human that inspires me. I had him as an undergraduate at UCLA. He is literally my ride or die and similar to my mom. Everything I do is to make him proud of me as a mom.

Q: Any final words of wisdom?
A: Stay true to yourself.  No matter what. If that authenticity means you don’t get promoted, you have to be the one to determine if it was (or wasn’t) worth it.  Stay true to yourself. If you are driven to do community-led research - and it takes years to develop those long-standing relationships - and thus you are passed over for tenure, was it worth it? I bet it was. The thing is to change the academy so that that type of work, the work that upholds the needs of the community and those relationships, real true relationships, have value, as much as publications.  Relationships matter. Your relationship with your community, as well as yourself, should be foremost.

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