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When Ironies Make Perfect Sense

Gina Wingood (Photo: Emory University)

Traveling to California to find yourself is a '60s cliché. But for Gina Wingood, a professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, Georgia, the trip to Berkeley, California, where she attended graduate school, set the course for the rest of her life. She found her life's work: designing AIDS-intervention programs for African-American women. She tapped into a hidden vein of solidarity with her black sisters that transcended her white-immersion upbringing and economic status. And she met the man who would become her closest scientific collaborator and her husband.

The HIV epidemic was severe--and completely fascinating, Wingood says, so she switched from genetic counseling to public health.

AIDS prevention

AIDS has now been on the public radar for nearly 3 decades. Despite many advances in understanding the disease, the epidemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on African-American women, says Richard Wolitski, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention: "One in 30 black women will be diagnosed with HIV in her lifetime."

Wingood didn't know any of this when she first came in contact with the disease in the mid-1980s. She saw many gay men dying of the disease, knew that it was sexually transmitted, and wondered what impact it might have on women.

Wingood had come to the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in 1985 to pursue a master's degree in genetic counseling. Her father thought that Oakland was too dangerous for his girl, so she lived in San Francisco. This opened the door to a part-time job at the Davies Hospital in the Castro District, San Francisco's "gay ghetto" and home to the late gay activist Harvey Milk.

The HIV epidemic was severe--and completely fascinating, Wingood says--so she switched from genetic counseling to public health. When she graduated in 1990, she decided to stick around. While her peers "got these great jobs and nice, fancy places," Wingood ventured deeper into San Francisco's ghettos.

She went to work at the Bayview Hunters Point Foundation for Community Improvement, which is named for the community in which it's located, a marginalized, crime-plagued, African-American neighborhood in southeast San Francisco. She quickly understood that the standard talk about condom use, HIV transmission, sexually transmitted diseases, and safe sex wasn't working for the neighborhood's minority women.

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At the time, most intervention programs were knowledge-based--but they had been developed for the gay male population. "What do gay men and black women have in common?" Wingood asks. "Men have control over the use of a condom; women do not. So they have to negotiate condom use, which is a very hard thing to do, especially if you're an 18-year-old girl with a partner who's 26 years of age." To be effective, they needed to change behaviors.

Wingood applied for a small grant from UC San Francisco to develop an HIV-prevention program tailored to African-American women. "That grant led to my career," she says.

Her work began with a simple question: How can we reduce women's risk of HIV? Today, Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on AIDS (SISTA), the program that Wingood launched with her seminal grant, is one of the most widely implemented HIV-intervention programs disseminated by CDC. SISTA fosters ethnic pride, bolsters self-esteem, improves communication skills, and teaches assertive, rather than aggressive or passive, negotiating skills. "[SISTA] addresses gender and culture in a way that really speaks to the experiences of African-American women, builds on their strengths and their connections with each other," Wolitski says.

Wingood went on to develop two other programs: Sistering, Informing, Healing, Living, and Empowering (SiHLE), for adolescents, and Women Involved in Life Learning from Other Women (WiLLOW), for HIV-positive women.

"Gina is at the forefront of HIV-prevention research," says James Curran, dean of Emory's Rollins School of Public Health. Curran was one of the first scientists to study the disease and the former head, during the 1980s, of CDC's task force on AIDS. Wingood has a rare talent, Curran says, for understanding the risks faced by African-American women, which provides the foundation for her innovative programs. "She really understands the context of the research as well as the science for making the interventions," he says.

"She's highly disciplined and organized and a very smart researcher," he continues. "She understands what might be effective, writes the grants, does the studies, publishes the results, and moves on to something that builds upon that. She does it all."

Suburban sister

Wingood didn't set out to be a major player in the field of AIDS intervention. "I wanted to be a jewelry designer," she says. But her dad, Leroy Wingood, a career chemist with Duracell, prevailed with a pro-science message. "He felt that science was a good start, that it would be a secure occupation, so he was a strong influence," Wingood says.

Leroy and Carolyn, Wingood's stay-at-home mom, moved the family to Bedford, Massachusetts, a predominantly white suburb of Boston, to provide better educational opportunities for their children. Gina stayed close to home for college, studying biology with a concentration in genetics at Boston University. By the time she graduated in 1985, she realized that she needed independence.

The move to California to attend UC Berkeley caused her parents some concern--but they were appalled to learn that their nice Catholic girl was preaching condom use and safe sex and leaning toward AIDS research.

Wingood may have been raised in a white suburban world, but she didn't see herself as different from the poor, black women she was meeting in San Francisco. She's not sure why. "Maybe it was because I didn't have African-American friends growing up, so it was sort of a community. I felt very comfortable."

A lifelong collaboration

While working at Bayview Hunters Point, Wingood met Ralph DiClemente, a health psychologist completing a postdoc at UC San Francisco who was the foundation's senior research scientist. She says, "He was the only white person working at the African-American CBO [community-based organization]." The two hit it off and began collaborating.

Gina Wingood and Ralph DiClemente discuss reproductive health with Emory University colleagues. (Courtesy, Gina Wingood)

Wingood took what she had learned in the ghettos of San Francisco to Harvard University, where it became the basis for her doctor of science dissertation. She published the results in The Journal of the American Medical Association. It was the first of many papers she co-authored with DiClemente. While Wingood was at Harvard, DiClemente was offered a position at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Now it was Wingood's turn to be appalled. She had never been to the South. "Alabama of all places," she told him. "Oh, Lord." Upon graduation in 1995, she followed DiClemente south.

"You have to be flexible in life, because you just never ever know where experiences and situations will take you," she says. The AIDS epidemic was taking a growing toll on the southern states, and Alabama was fertile ground for research. In 1998, they moved again when DiClemente was offered the chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at Emory University.

Wingood has made her home at Emory. But the birth 4 years ago of the couple's daughter, Sahara, didn't slow her down; she just works another shift after she puts Sahara to bed. "It's the 9-to-2 shift, and so my staff usually receive e-mails from me very late at night," she says.

Many academic couples find it difficult to coordinate their careers; one often sacrifices for the other. "For some people, I guess it would be a challenge, but for us it doesn't seem to be," Wingood says. "I think we're able to be so productive because we do the same thing. ... I think the interaction between us makes everything work."

"They've been great partners both in life and in science and research," Curran says. Whether working independently or together, "they just exceed the productivity of any two people."

Resolving contradictions

Wingood is now setting her sights on reaching even more women with her intervention programs. She has adapted SISTA for use in South Africa and tweaked SiHLE for adolescents in the Caribbean. Closer to home, she's creating a faith-based version of SISTA. She's taking AIDS prevention to church.

Her staff first clued her in to the existence of Atlanta's black megachurches, which seat more than 10,000 and have satellite facilities of similar size. At first, she thought her staff was nuts, she says. "How in the world was I going to get a program on sex, condoms, and HIV into the church?" 

In fact, her programs were the answer to many pastors' prayers. Many parishioners were living with HIV, but the churches didn't know how to respond to them. Wingood's faith-based proposal set them at ease, and they welcomed her into their fold. Early this year, Wingood secured funding to move ahead with the program. "The beauty is that you're taking HIV out of a health setting," Wingood says. "And people don't go to health settings unless they really, really need to, but they go to church every week."

The new project is just one of the ways Gina Wingood has managed to take a professional life filled with incongruous juxtapositions and resolve it into a career that makes perfect sense. She is an African-American woman who grew up Catholic in a prosperous, white, East Coast world, who helped African-American women in a West Coast ghetto by talking about AIDS and contraception--who then took those same ideas right into church. "It clearly speaks to her ability to look beyond herself, and it speaks to her compassion as a human being," Wolitski says.

Anne Sasso is a freelancer writer and may be reached at