Public health honors graduate takes on sexual violence, COVID-19 to help others

May 26, 2020

By Sally Crocker

Julia Aiken Web

School of Public Health honors graduate Julia Aiken is researching a topic that far too few people know about, that the #MeToo movement also has special significance for male victims of sexual violence.

She hopes to get her work published. But for now, there’s more to do in a number of areas, including commencement, moving on with her career after graduation and continuing to assist with Tarrant County Public Health’s COVID-19 contact-tracing efforts throughout the summer.

Aiken recently received this year’s Kenneth H. Cooper Award for Outstanding Research, as the graduating public health student best demonstrating excellence and quality in the application of research methods. The award is named for bestselling author and health/wellness guru Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.

In addition, she has been named to a prestigious group, the Delta Omega national public health honor society.

Aiken graduates this month with an MPH in Public Health Practice.

She has been interested in sexual health research since her undergraduate days at Oklahoma State University, leading her to public health.

“Around 2016, before #MeToo became a widely publicized movement, I conducted social media research on sexual consent, rape and assault through OSU’s Sexual Health Research Lab, and later went on to become a peer-educator teaching safe sex practices at the University of Central Oklahoma,” Aiken said.

“I would get so mad about the injustices of gendered violence – immersing myself in research gave me a way of channeling those frustrations, to look at the problem from a clinical perspective with solutions to reduce that suffering.”

Aiken pointed out that, while it’s not talked about as much, a staggering number of men – about 1 in 6 – are sexually abused before the age of 18, creating lasting trauma that can impact their future health and the health of others.

“Research to prevent the violence and sexual assault of men is years behind that of women, so there’s some catching up we need to do,” Aiken said. “It wasn’t until actor and former NFL player Terry Crews publicly stepped forward in 2017 that men received a place in the #MeToo movement alongside women.”

With a focus on prevention, Aiken began working with SPH faculty member Dr. Stacey Griner last November to analyze CDC data on the prevalence of sexual assault among males in the U.S. and the health outcomes associated with this type of violence. The two are now co-authoring a paper on the topic.

“Studies show that violence is a learned behavior, impacted by what individuals believe is normal and acceptable,” Aiken said. “It is a growing, global public health problem – each year, more than 1 million people lose their lives and many more suffer injuries from violence. It is preventable.”

Aiken’s goal is to use her data collection, coding and analysis to show that there are real people behind the numbers, real lives at stake.

She’s interested in other areas of public health prevention as well, and while celebrating commencement online isn’t how she expected to finish the semester, she sees many opportunities for the field of public health as the result of COVID-19 and other serious problems our world faces.

The ideal next step for Aiken would be a position combining her interests in both data collection/analysis and community service, like some of the projects she’s taken on for the Women’s Center of Tarrant County and, most recently during the pandemic, for Tarrant County Public Health.

“Most people don’t think or hear much about public health until times of crisis, such as with COVID-19, or even more so for preventing sexual violence,” Aiken said. “That’s when the work of our public health system and the many scientists behind the scenes comes to the forefront … that’s why I chose the field and am so excited to launch this next stage of my career.”

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