Co-Director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Core: Maria Cecilia Zea, PhD

Photo of Maria Cecilia Zea
June 01, 2014

Maria Cecilia Zea, PhD knows that research is a culture in its own. In her new role as Co-Director of DC D-CFAR's Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) Core, she will help translate the culture of HIV/AIDS research for aspiring investigators.

Learning about research is like learning a new culture, says Maria Cecilia Zea, PhD, director of GW's Latino Health Research Center (LHRC) and Professor of Psychology at the George Washington University. And she would know: as a Colombian immigrant and accomplished researcher, Zea has substantial experience learning about both.

"To conduct research, you have not only to distinguish what is important from what is not important, but also to learn to communicate in a different way," reasoned Zea. "Decoding the research culture for the younger generations is important."

Zea was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, and moved to the United States in 1985 to pursue her PhD in Clinical and Community Psychology at the University of Maryland in College Park. Her research, which has been conducted in cities across the United States and in Colombia, focuses mainly on behavioral aspects of HIV/AIDS among Latino gay men, "in particular, structural and behavioral factors that lead to HIV infection," she explained.

For example, in her first project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Zea studied disclosure of HIV status among Latino gay men. In the next, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Zea explored situational and personal individual characteristics associated with sexual risk among Latino men who have sex with men (MSM). Currently, she is the principal investigator of an NICHD-funded R01 to study HIV prevalence, sexual risk, and attitudes towards circumcision among Colombian MSM, and a co-investigator in an NICHD-funded project on HIV risk among Latino day laborers.

In her new role as the Co-Director of DC D-CFAR's SBS Core, Zea will oversee the recruitment and development of young researchers whose projects relate to HIV/AIDS behavior, prevention and/or biostatistics. She hopes to encourage proposals that will address contextual and behavioral factors related to HIV transmission in Washington, DC, ultimately helping to inform prevention efforts. "The risks for individuals in the District of Columbia include social networks with high prevalence rates of HIV as well as limited access to treatment," she said. More research is needed to explicate sexual risk behavior within this context. Above all, Zea, who currently derives great satisfaction from working with Psychology graduate students, is embracing the mentorship component of DC D-CFAR. "If you only develop your own career, you risk leaving behind a generation that could have carried research forward," she said. "I would especially like to see other women and people of color conducting this type of research because, as members of the community, they have valuable access to knowledge that can result in high quality research."