HIV/AIDS, a bus and persistence = a win for COPH alumna Bernice Lopez-McCoy

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USF College of Public Health alumna Bernice Lopez-McCoy has some advice for recent graduates “You have to be willing to start at the bottom of the ladder in order to get to the top.” This mindset served Lopez-McCoy well over the course of her professional career and helped her land her current position as health services program manager at the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office (DACCO), a position she’s held since May of 2015.

“Prior to beginning my career at DACCO, I held a part-time position at the Ybor Youth Clinic where recruitment of research participants heavily depended on night outreach. I would roam 7th Avenue Thursday to Saturday nights with my team in order to access potential participants for our projec11t,” Lopez-McCoy said. “The hours were unconventional, but this position provided me a new perspective about the HIV epidemic and gave me an experience that has enriched my career. Such an experience is one that I brought with me to DACCO and one that has enabled me to move up the professional ladder.”

A native of Palm Coast, Florida, Lopez-McCoy shares, “My practice is behavioral and community health, my passion is reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS locally.”

Lopez-McCoy shares her practice at USF Health Research Day, circa 2011.

Lopez-McCoy shares her practice at USF Health Research Day, circa 2011.

 

This commitment is exhibited in her doctoral dissertation entitled, “The Aging of An Epidemic: An examination of the social and medical characteristics of aging, HIV positive, African-American Men in Hillsborough County, Florida.”

Although her doctorate is in anthropology, Lopez-McCoy fondly recalls why she chose public health as her life’s work.

“No matter the health issue, it is rewarding to see how researchers, educators and practitioners work alongside communities and populations to identify and prevent diseases,” she said.

In fact, it was a personal trip to sub-Saharan Africa that led her to the COPH and HIV/AIDS as an area of interest.

“This trip opened my eyes as to how the HIV/AIDS epidemic is perceived,” Lopez-McCoy said. “In Africa, health care practitioners often blamed the epidemic on high risk behaviors, lack of education or lack of ability to negotiate safe sex practices like condom use, when they should have focused on the sociocultural determinants of heath that create a vulnerable context for risk and impede HIV prevention.”

Upon her return to the states, Lopez enrolled in the USF COPH and, unknowingly at the time, officially launched her career path with DACCO.

Lopez-McCoy’s initial encounter with the agency was indirectly as a graduate assistant with an HIV/AIDS research project called HERSTUDY. Under the direction of COPH principal investigator, Dr. Stephanie Marhefka, Lopez-McCoy admits to learning “the ins and outs of research planning, project implementation, evaluation and management in my field of interest. I published my first article with her as well. I’m indebted to her for the amount of mentorship and time she spent in making me the individual I am today.”

She also honed her skills as an HIV educator. In this role, Lopez-McCoy taught HIV 101 courses and conducted infectious diseases risk assessments for every client—skills that have proven to be invaluable with her continued work on HIV/AIDS in the community.

When asked what professional accomplishment she’s most proud of, Lopez-McCoy beams and shares news of her baby—a mobile health services unit for DACCO.

Fresh into her new role as health services program manager at DACCO, Lopez-McCoy spent the first few months evaluating all of the programs under her jurisdiction.

“I assessed particular project needs, barriers and facilitators and noticed that a primary issue across all projects were clients’ inability to access services due to location, time and lack of adequate transportation,” Lopez-McCoy said.

That’s when a lightbulb went off. Actually, it started pulsating and Lopez-McCoy knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“In July of 2015, I proposed the idea of a DACCO Mobile Unit to our CEO and current funders. I’m proud to say that as of March 2016, DACCO is mobile!”

DACCO CEO Mary Lynn Ulrey and Lopez-McCoy proudly show off her “dream bus.” “I’m extremely excited about this new adventure that DACCO is undertaking,” Lopez-McCoy said.

DACCO CEO Mary Lynn Ulrey and Bernice proudly show off her “dream bus.” “I’m extremely excited about this new adventure that DACCO is undertaking,” Lopez-McCoy said.

 

The goal of the mobile unit is to bring DACCO’s health services out to those who need it the most. Initial offerings will include testing for HIV, Hepatitis C, pregnancy and other diagnostics, as well as medical case-management, outreach and health education.

“Of course, we will be looking to expand our breadth of services to include other behavioral health services, such as assessment and counseling. Additionally, we hope to be able to add other specialties like infectious disease care,” Lopez-McCoy said. “We are very excited for this new opportunity to serve the communities of Hillsborough County.”

Bernice Lopez-McCoy, MPH

Bernice Lopez-McCoy, MPH

 

As for her future projects, they’re a little bit more personal in nature. In the short term, the proud Bull is going for a repeat and is pursuing a PhD in anthropology. Upon graduation in 2017, she’ll have earned two degrees from USF—a master of public health in global communicable diseases and a doctorate.

Further down the road, she’s exploring a couple of options.

“I hope to obtain a tenure-tracked teaching position at a major research university teaching courses in medical anthropology,” Lopez-McCoy said. “However, I am also open to opportunities in the non-profit/governmental sector working on issues pertaining to HIV/AIDS and substance use.”

“My dream job is to work as a public health advisor for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief,” she said.

Given her success with making DACCO’s “dream bus” a reality. It’s only a matter of time before she takes her KSA’s to PEPFAR.

 

Fast Five for COPH Alumni:

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

I wanted to be a news reporter!

Where would we find you on the weekend?

I grew up on the East Coast and loved the beach!

What is the last book you read?

For pleasure: “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”; For dissertation: “The Life Story Interview”

What superpower would you like to have?

Not sure if this is quite a superpower, but I’d love to have a photographic memory. It would be great to remember everything I see and read!

What’s your all-time favorite movie?

I love The Green Mile!

 

Story by Natalie D. Preston, USF College of Public Health

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