By Dorothy Hagmajer
At first, she wanted to be a singer.
Shantrel Canidate’s transition from 6-year-old aspiring pop star to HIV/AIDS-researching doctoral student started with her job at a pharmacy and a couple of college courses taken during her junior year. The latter emphasized how poorly the initial HIV/AIDS crisis had been handled in its early stages — from being wrongly labeled a “gay disease” to general inaction.
“It made me want to make a difference,” Canidate said. “That’s what really motivated me to go into public health.”
And her motivation has not wavered since then. In 2012, Canidate graduated with a master’s degree in public health from UF. She applied to the Ph.D. program in the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of behavioral science and community health, but did not make the first round of admissions. But where some might have been disheartened or permanently deterred, Canidate chose to take a year off and regroup. During that time she worked as the HIV outreach coordinator for the Florida Department of Health.
As a coordinator, she tested clients for HIV in nontraditional areas of Gainesville — such as the Pride Community Center and Bodytech, a local piercing and tattoo parlor — and at nontraditional times, like the dead of night.
“It was how I really got to reach out to the community and get to know some of the issues and concerns,” Canidate said.
Canidate found herself setting up testing opportunities and inputting results into the health care management system. She was doing it all and, most importantly, love every minute of it. Her favorite part? The testing itself.
“When I first started I was nervous because I’m shy and I wasn’t sure how I was going to connect with people,” she said. “But as time went on, I loved it.”
When she was accepted into the Ph.D. program in 2013, she took on the challenged of balancing classes with teaching and research assistant positions to put herself through the program.
“I knew this was something I had to do,” Canidate said. “I’m blessed to say that what I did was actually in my area of research, so it really didn’t feel like work.”
Canidate was recently awarded minority supplement funds from the National Institutes of Health in the area of HIV and alcohol research. For the next two years, this money will help her to become an independently funded researcher. Right now, her long-term goal is to initiate culturally relevant alcohol and HIV prevention programs geared specifically toward African-Americans. She places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of interventions, especially at a young age.
“It’s interventions that can help decrease the stigma around HIV/AIDS and decrease the risk associated with the disease in the community. I feel like being young and passionate can motivate people,” she said.
There’s a wealth of information available to the public about HIV/AIDS — how the virus spreads, what you can do to slow it down and where you can go for medication. But to Canidate, the most important thing can be summed up in two words.