Stephanie Staras, M.S.P.H., Ph.D., is an associate professor in the department of health Outcomes and biomedical informatics within the UF College of Medicine and a faculty member of the Institute for Child Health Policy at UF.
A main focus of her work is reducing human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancer cases and disparities by studying risk factors and designing parent- and provider-targeted interventions to improve HPV vaccination rates. In the following Q&A, Dr. Staras discusses her research and what led her to focus on HPV interventions.
Q: What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?
A: HPV is a very common virus that most people will become infected with in their lifetimes, and not even know it because of the lack of symptoms. There are over 100 kinds of HPV, but only certain types lead to cancer, such as cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, throat, and anal cancers.
Q: Can you tell me about your research with (HPV) and other cancer treatments?
A: Most of my research focuses on how to get the HPV vaccine to girls and boys around 11 and 12 years old. The vaccine prevents 70 percent of cancer cases, but only 60 percent of the girls and 50 percent of the boys recommended for the vaccine actually get it. Currently, I’m developing an iPad-based intervention for parents and health care providers. The parent comes into a clinic and the app walks them through the available vaccines, addresses concerns about vaccines and provides them with educational information. I want to get parents ready for a conversation with their provider. As soon as the parent answers the questions, the provider can use the app to see the concerns the parent mentioned. This way the provider can know and prepare for the parents’ concerns before they discuss the vaccine.
Q: Why did you choose HPV research as your life’s work?
A: My entire research career has been about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and right when I started my academic career, the first HPV vaccine came out. Right away, it became apparent to me that the HPV vaccine wasn’t happening like the others. I then saw an opportunity to use my specific skill set to make a big difference. I want people to know that we really can prevent cancer with this vaccine. We have an actual vaccine for cancer — you would think people would be lining up around the block, but they’re not. We think if parents and providers understood how safe and effective the HPV vaccine is at preventing cancer, nearly everyone would get the vaccine.
Q: How do you think HPV cancer interventions can improve?
A: Providers must start recommending this vaccine at the level of other vaccines, and we need to shift the conversation from it being optional to it being a good choice for your health. I’m also working on a texting intervention to remind parents when their child turns 11 or 12 that it’s time for the HPV vaccine, because it’s an age where parents aren’t thinking much about vaccines.
Q: What is your job like on a daily basis?
A: The day-to-day of my job is pretty diverse, but right now I’m really focusing on app development and writing material for the app. I’m also training students on how to conduct focus groups. My favorite part of my job is the writing, but it’s hard to carve out time to sit down and do it with no distractions. Much of the time I’m working together with the app developers and the Institutional Review Board (IRB), and I’m even working on another grant.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: It’s hard to see the difference I’m making since I don’t work one-on-one with patients, but when I look at the intervention data, that’s when I can tell. This app has been really frustrating to develop, but I persist because I know at the bottom of my soul I know it will help people, and I want to feel like we made a difference. We are working on stuff that is moving the needle forward on cancer prevention. My goal is to get doctors to help push parents past this fear; no parent wants to see their child hurt.
Q: What is the toughest part of your job at the moment?
A: Definitely everything involved with the IT portion of the app. I’m having to rely on someone else to constantly help me, which is frustrating at times. It will be worth it, though — this app is going to benefit so many families.