Michael Hawes: In an interview with Fulbright Canada, Killam Fellow Christina Pierpaoli and Fulbright Scholar Dr. Charles Emlet discuss their passion for their discipline, their decision to collaborate, and the importance of the student-mentor relationship. The Fulbright Program aims to provide an opportunity for impassioned students and scholars to exchange ideas, and to collaborate on leading edge research projects. Learning of this collaboration, and the crossover of these two programs, the Killam Fellowships Program for undergraduate students and the Fulbright Scholar Program, has been extremely exciting. We are proud to have students and scholars like Christina and Charles as our grantees and alumni.
Christina: I recently had the opportunity to study Italian literature in Urbino, Italy for six weeks on scholarship from Rutgers University. In my brief, but infinitely rewarding exchanges with older Italians there, who ambled daily along the countryside and laughed heartily, I was taken with a curiosity to understand relative differences in healthy longevity. At present, I am a Killam Fellow at the University of Toronto, under the auspices of Fulbright Canada, where I am examining dimensions of aging and cognition. Particularly exciting has been my collaboration with Principal Investigator and Fulbright Scholar Dr. Charles Emlet.
Charles: I am Professor of Social Work from the University of Washington, Tacoma. For my Fulbright award, I went on exchange to McMaster University to understand the lived experiences of older adults living with HIV in Ontario through in-depth interviews. I have always had a passion for gerontology, and this opportunity has given me a chance to further my existing research on aging and HIV with Canadian colleagues, and get a better grasp of how people “age well” with HIV. In reading the profiles of Fulbright Scholars and Killam Fellows at the Fulbright Canada Fall Orientation, I noticed another person that indicated an interest in gerontology. While we were waiting for commencement of the Killam lecture, I approached Christina and inquired about her interest in aging and gerontology. This conversation was revisited over lunch at the Canadian War Museum.
Christina: I was excited to meet the Fulbright scholars as I have a reverence for academia, knowledge, and curiosity. That, for me, is the essence of a Fulbright scholar. Having quickly learned how genuinely accommodating and approachable the scholars were, I developed a comfort in our discussions. I found myself talking (complaining) to Dr. Emlet about the dearth of undergraduate research opportunities in aging and life span development. I cited the work of my independent studies and goals for my time at the University of Toronto, where opportunities in academic gerontology seemed comparatively robust, when he mentioned the qualitative research in aging and HIV he would be conducting there during the time of my exchange.
Charles: I suggested we might get together and discuss how she could be involved in my Fulbright research project. We met again after I had been in Ontario for about a week and outlined some of the things she would like to learn from the experiences of a qualitative research project.
Christina: Dr. Emlet and I maintained a dialogue over email until the time of our exchange in January. I found myself overwhelmed with an eagerness to be in Toronto and begin our exploration of this inquiry.
Charles: The project is a qualitative study, involving 30 in-depth interviews with adults age 50 and over who are HIV+ and aging successfully. The goal is to learn about personal, social and environmental characteristics that assist them in successful aging to see if some of those traits or strategies could be transferred to others. We are finding that there are many older adults who have lived with HIV disease for a long time and are doing quite well. They seem generally excited to share their stories.
Christina: Particularly fascinating about Dr. Emlet’s research are the populations inherent to it. His work seeks to capture and honour the experiences of two historically disenfranchised groups with whom I hope to work clinically in my continued studies of psychology and aging. The emerging stories of HIV positive elderly had until now, remained relatively unknown.
Charles: I have spent a considerable amount of time studying and working with older HIV+ adults throughout my career. I began working in the field of HIV in 1987 when everybody was dying. I ran an AIDS Home Care project in northern California for 12 years. Since coming to academia, this has been the major focus of my research. Originally focusing on stigma and discrimination, I have recently begun looking at the “positive side” (pun intended) of living with HIV. Older adults are becoming newly infected but many have been living with HIV for 20, 25 or 30 years; to figure out how and why they are doing well, and to witness their stories in an honour. There is almost no research on resilience among older HIV positive adults, so this is very new and exciting territory.
Christina: With Dr. Emlet’s guidance, I hope to improve my qualitative data analysis and interviewing skills. Dr. Emlet is one of the best listeners to whom I have ever had the privilege of talking, and I look forward to refining that highly sophisticated, but grossly underappreciated skill. I have already learned so much! Particularly exciting has been my role in observing and partially facilitating qualitative interviews; having the privilege to hear intimate and inspiring accounts of resilience overwhelms me with gratitude for Dr. Emlet’s mentorship, and also engenders excitement for my prospective clinical work. In listening to their stories, I am reminded of the silence of human strength and suffering, and I am reminded that everyone has a story. This has been a humbling exercise.
Charles: I have involved undergrads in my research on several previous occasions. I love the excitement and enthusiasm that they bring, and Christina is no exception. She is so engaged and excited about gerontology in general and this project in particular. Christina brings fresh eyes and lots of questions to the process. She will often ask questions about how or why something is being done which makes me think. Having her come from what the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, called “beginners mind” is very helpful. When something is new to you it is never approached in a rote way. I really am enjoying her inquisitive and questioning nature.
Christina: I am honoured to work alongside Dr. Emlet, whose work has contributed so meaningfully to the lives of older adults and the HIV community, and continues to inspire students like myself, who are interested in those empirically underrepresented populations. Working with impassioned educators and scholars like Dr. Emlet reinforces my passion for knowledge, education, and research. Being a mentee has affirmed my competence as a producer of knowledge- not merely a consumer of it.
Charles: The student and the professor learn from one another. The professor needs to come in with an idea of learning as well as the student. In this project, we are learning about how people live well and age successfully with HIV disease. They are the experts in this not me. So as Christina and I collaborate, we learn together from the people being interviewed. We learn what works for them and why. Maybe we learn enough to begin to create some potential interventions for those not doing so well. We have a three way team in some way, researcher, student and participant. The relationship is important for a couple reasons. I am a social worker and as such often have difficulty getting students to understand the importance of research and its impact on social work practice. So by entering into a student-scholar relationship the student can hopefully see – first hand – its value. On another level, part of our job as scholars is to mentor and bring up the next generation of researchers. In this case Gerontological researchers. Through this relationship you can pass the baton, so to speak, about researching important issues in aging and gerontology. Christina is very committed to gerontology, which is great, now we just need to work on the HIV part.