Born the child of Greek immigrants who, he says, not only loved him but also challenged and supported him to achieve everything he wanted to achieve in life, Dr. Halkitis is a perfect example of what it means to be the best at prevention education. Citing the genius of Albert Einstein as his inspiration, he strives to achieve excellence in everything he does. Aside from having his dream job as an associate professor in New York University's (NYU) Department of Applied Psychology, Dr. Halkitis has served as both a consultant and a committee member on several HIV educational campaigns throughout the state of New York.
He holds numerous titles and degrees that further validate his position as one of the top HIV prevention educators in the United States. He is Director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies (CHIBPS, formerly CHEST), a behavior research center at NYU where he conducts formative and intervention community-based research and education targeting those most impacted by the epidemic.
His approach is holistic and makes the individual look at the totality of factors and behaviors in his or her life that may lead to risky behavior. He was among the first to document the rise of club drug use in our country and to disseminate this knowledge to empower communities to address how these substances affect the HIV epidemic.
How long have you been doing prevention education?
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
My work has changed as the HIV epidemic has progressed. Originally, my work focused solely on the prevention of HIV infection in HIV-positive gay and bisexual men and has since expanded to other populations including women. Most importantly, however, my work now encompasses the complex interaction between issues of development, mental health, drug use and risk behaviors, in relation to each other, rather than risk behaviors singly and out of context.
If I were to follow you over a week, what would I see you do at work? Please give details of all the things you actually do.
1. Mentoring my student researchers and thus preparing the next generation of psychological researchers who will work in the arena of HIV prevention; this includes working on manuscripts and dissertations and helping them evolve their own independent line of work.
2. Presenting at local and national conferences and community-based organizations to disseminate findings of our work as soon as possible so that it is most useful to the communities affected by HIV.
3. Applying for grants to numerous organizations to keep our work funded.
4. Supervising interns at our research site CHIBPS.
5. Conducting media interviews to disseminate findings.
6. Preparing manuscripts for both scholarly and popular press publications.
7. Brainstorming with my research team about our current projects under way and our future work. My team consists of graduate-level student researchers and undergraduate student interns; at present, my research team consists of 10 student researchers and 15 student interns.
8. Seeking collaborations with other colleagues across my university to expand the vision of our work.
9. Serving on grant and editorial board review committees.
10. Seeking collaborations with community organizations.
11. As a faculty member of the Department of Applied Psychology at NYU, I wear many hats: chair of the department of 29 faculty and numerous programs; director of my center -- CHIBPS, which was formerly known as CHEST NYU; teaching courses in applied methodology, health and human development and HIV prevention and counseling.
What do you think has been the most successful way to get people to minimize their sexual risk taking?
The best way to help people to reduce risk is to help them think about their behavior and assist them in developing internal motivations that may minimize the risks they take in the future. I think it is important to help individuals look at their own lives and consider obstacles to safer sexual and other behaviors. Then we can help them to consider ways to overcome these obstacles. My approach is holistic and helps the individual look at the totality of factors and behaviors that may lead to risk.
What's the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my work is the immediate impact that it can have on people's lives and the important social relevance of the work we do.
What's the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing is recognizing that for every step forward in combating this disease we occasionally take steps back.
What have been your greatest successes in your work?
My greatest success has been to be among the first to document the rise of club drug use in our country and to disseminate this knowledge to empower communities to address how these substances affect the HIV epidemic; also, as lead editor of the volume HIV-Positive Sex: The Psychological and Interpersonal Dynamics of HIV-Seropositive Gay and Bisexual Men's Relationships (APA Publications), I have helped to give voice to seropositive people as viable sexual beings whose sexual lives have been stigmatized and misunderstood.
And your greatest failure?
The greatest failure has been in convincing the federal government over the last few years why the work that we do is crucially important.
What is the biggest challenge you face as an HIV prevention educator?
The biggest challenge is making society at large in the United States understand that HIV is still an enormous public health problem in our country, and thus combating the complacency that has developed around the disease.
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
I do not believe that one can isolate a single factor, and think that this is in fact shortsighted. Rather, I believe that the combination of mental health issues, drug use, and environmental and social factors all interact to create risk taking. I believe a biopsychosocial approach to understand HIV risk is the most effective way to think about the disease.
Do you think that the HIV prevention efforts are sufficient? Anything you would change?
Prevention efforts have not been as effective in the last decade as in the first decade of the disease. I think our approaches must be more complex and evolve as the disease has evolved. Simple media campaigns and use-a-condom-every time strategies seem antiquated at this point. More holistic psycho-educational approaches are needed.
What is the most important, memorable or useful thing you have learned from the people you work with?
I have learned to appreciate life for all its wonder and glory and not to take any day of life for granted.
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
I have hope.
If you weren't a prevention educator, what would you be?
If I weren't working specifically on issues of HIV, I would be working on other health matters that affect our society.
What do you think is the biggest problem people living with HIV face today?
Positive people continue to face many challenges including health and psychological burdens as well as stigma from society. I think the biggest problem that they face is living in a society where HIV is no longer considered a challenge.
Which populations do you work with?
I work across all populations (positive and negative), across gender and across racial/ethnic/cultural groups, but mainly with adults.
Have you tried to do workshops in places where people really are in denial?
No, I have the honor of mostly working in New York City, which is more enlightened than the rest of the country.
Have the Bush administration's abstinence-only policies affected your work?
Funding under the Bush administration has been an enormous challenge.
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
To all those who lost their lives to the disease.
We'd like our readers to get a sense of you as more than just a prevention educator. Could you share a little personal information about yourself?
I am a 42-year-old gay man of Greek ancestry, partnered to a wonderful man named Leslie Smith, live in Manhattan and spend my weekends upstate. I have a doctorate in psychology and have my dream profession as a professor at NYU, a university dedicated to public service. I have one younger brother and a tremendously talented niece, Sophia. I travel often and dream of living in England at some point.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City, the child of Greek immigrants.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor or an educator.
What kind of work do/did your parents do?
My parents were/are working class. Sadly, my father died at the young age of 57 in 1992; my mother continues to work as a salesperson in a bedding and bath store. Both were elementary-school educated, and I am still in awe that within one generation I could achieve the level of education that I currently have.
When did you decide you wanted to be a prevention educator? What was your major in college?
I was a pre-med, biology-psychology major at Columbia University, and earned my B.A. in 1984. I picked up an M.A. along the way, and in 1995, I earned my doctorate at the City University of New York in applied psychological research and statistics under two amazing mentors, Drs. Alan Gross and David Rindskopf. It was not until 1995-96 that I began to work in the arena of HIV prevention and education.
What other jobs have you had?
Out of college, I was an elementary school teacher, as I pursued my master's and doctorate. I very much loved working with children. After my first master's and as I was working on my doctorate, I worked as a researcher at two organizations, where I began to realize that my skills would do more good working in an area for which I had great passion, HIV prevention and education. I was director of evaluation and research at Gay Men's Health Crisis from 1996 until 1998, and then I was honored to be recruited by NYU.
What made you decide to become a prevention educator?
It became apparent to me in 1995 that my skills as a psychological researcher could easily be coupled with my greatest passion, HIV prevention. I decided to marry these two areas.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Professionally, the genius of Albert Einstein inspires me.
Personally, I am at this point in my life because of my parents, who
not only loved me, but challenged and supported me to achieve. Those first
five years of life set the tone for what was to follow.
What do you do in your spare time?
In the little time I have to myself, I read novels, I love to watch TV (as I think any good social scientist should, to keep his/her hand on the pulse of society). I work out and I spend time with my partner.
What is your partner's job?
My partner, Leslie Smith, is the director of contracts and compliance of the disaster recovery unit of the American Red Cross of Greater NY. He is also an artist, and produced, wrote and directed the gay film David Searching.
We have two pets -- our young and spoiled cats -- Sylvia and Oliver.
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?
I live in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, and spend my weekends and summers at our place upstate in Accord/Marbletown in Ulster County.
If you could live anyplace besides where you live now, where would it be?
What's the biggest adventure you ever had?
Chopping down a piece of the Berlin Wall.
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
I just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, which I loved, and am now reading The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?
I love rock music. Some favorites are Green Day, The Killers, U2, Garbage, The Smiths, Van Halen, Aerosmith, The Cars and Queen. I also, unlike most New Yorkers, love country music. But, ultimately, my greatest musical icon is Kate Bush.
Interview by Keith Green