Posted on Oct 18, 2021

Meet Dr. Stephanie Marhefka, senior associate dean of research

Meet Dr. Stephanie Marhefka, senior associate dean of research

Stephanie Marhefka, PhD, remembers going through her college years unsure what her career path would be, knowing only that she wanted to make a difference.

Then, one day in the 1990s, while pursuing a PhD in clinical and health psychology from the University of Florida, she was presented with an opportunity to work in a pediatric HIV clinic. It would be with adolescents living with perinatally-acquired HIV.

Marhefka remembered the pain she’d felt having watched years earlier as an older cousin suffered mostly alone with HIV in his final days, as religious family members hesitated even to visit him in the hospital.

“They were afraid to support him because he was gay,” she said.

Marhefka immediately felt pulled to work with the teenagers, for whom little research existed at the time. “This is my calling. This is what I have to do,” she recalled thinking, recognizing a chance to make a difference. “They really captured my heart.”

That calling and career path would take her through an internship and postdoctoral fellowship in Baltimore at the University of Maryland and then more postdoctoral research at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University.

And it would ultimately lead her back to Florida, where Marhefka joined USF Health in 2007, working up through various positions –and where this past June she was appointed the new senior associate dean of research for the College of Nursing.

Marhefka brings to the post more than two decades of experience as a behavioral scientist in mixed-methods research, focusing onsocial determinants of health andimproving HIV-related care and treatment.

That includes groundbreaking work in telehealth –long before the current COVID-19 pandemic made such work so essential.

That work stemmed from a turning point in her research. As treatment outcomes improved dramatically over the years, largely preventing perinatal HIV in the U.S., Marhefka shifted her focus to helping adults with HIV live healthier and longer lives.

In 2009, she was funded by NIH to test a group telehealth program designed to help people with HIV who were isolated in rural areas or hours from an in-person clinic. The popular technology at the time was Skype.

Then in 2012,already steeped in telehealthresearch, she and a collaborator began adapting a smoking cessation program forgroup video conferencing. With smoking now the number one cause of death among people with HIV, Marhefka hoped to add years to their lives by helping them quit smoking.

Within a few years, Zoom provided another great tool for her telehealth work, and in 2019, Marhefka received a five-year $2.9 million R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute to address disproportionate smoking rates among people living with HIV.

When the pandemic hit, she realized her team’s telehealth experience could help fellow scientists.

“We have something special to share with other researchers regarding how to do this,” she said.

Marhefka is excited about her new role helping the College reach its goals to rise in rankings, to attract more grants and researchers, and to increasingly stand out in excellence in interdisciplinary and nursing science. “This college offers even more than a great place for nursing students to further their careers.

“Our researchers,” she said, “are conducting cutting edge, Trailblazing science that will make a real difference in the lives of nurses as well as the lives of all of us who are patients.”

Story by Saundra Amrhein