Quest Feature Allie Carter, Visiting Faculty

University: UBC (BSc), SFU (Master of Public Health & PhD in Health Sciences)

Twitter: @MsAllieCarter 

What’s your Question, Allie?

I’d say it’s How can we create enabling social conditions so women living with HIV can have the sexual life they want?

Right now, the discourse around HIV is all about fear, stigma, and how not to transmit or acquire the virus. While prevention is important, it’s not the only thing that matters.

In my PhD work, I’m trying to broaden the sexual health discourse to include more positive aspects, like sexual pleasure, love and intimate connection to help destigmatize and normalize sexuality for women with HIV.

The latest science shows that for people taking HIV medication today who are adherent and have a low viral load, the risk of transmitting it to someone through condomless sex is 0%. Zero. Or as they say: undetectable = untransmittable.

And yet pursuing and experiencing positive and rewarding aspects of sexuality remains a significant challenge for many women with HIV, owing to persistent stigma, discrimination and criminalization of the disease in society.

Enough already! We have an opportunity today, because of medicine and years of community advocacy, to view HIV as just another disease and make a positive difference in women’s sexual health and rights.

Tell me more about your Phd research.

My involvement in HIV research began in 2011, when I was a research coordinator for the Canadian HIV Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Cohort Study (CHIWOS,

During the five years I worked on the study, we hired and trained 40 women living with HIV across Canada as peer research associates to recruit and interview over 1,400 women living with HIV in British Columbia, Ontario and Québec.

It’s a longitudinal study, involving surveys at baseline and every 18 months to see how health outcomes change over time and identify both health-enhancing and health-inhibiting factors. Our goal is to inform innovative, women-centred social policy and service interventions.

Over these years of working together, it became increasingly clear that the sexual needs of women living with HIV were largely ignored in research, policy and practice. So, when I began my PhD in 2015, I set out to learn more about women’s diverse experiences with sex, love and relationships, looking at how historical, cultural and structural factors shape and constrain their intimate lives.

What classes are you teaching at Quest? 

Last fall, I taught Epidemiology, where students got to be disease detectives and design their own health study. Right now, I’m teaching Social Determinants of Health, and students are learning about the role social, cultural, economic and political factors have on health and health equity.

What advice would you give a student taking your class? 

If you’re comfortable, you’re not learning. In my classes, we tackle challenging subject matters in relation to health such as racism, gender marginalization and income inequality. While these issues can bring up strong emotions, I am a firm believer that we can’t get to a better place without talking about them. So I encourage my students to actively engage and ask hard questions of themselves and me. Their critical thinking is quite impressive, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me

Why did you choose to teach at Quest? What are the students like? 

If I can be honest, I almost didn’t apply for the position, as I didn’t think I had 100% of the qualifications. But it just so happened I was reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book at the time, called Lean In. In it, she talks about how women consistently underestimate themselves and encouraged a shift in thinking from “I’m not ready to do that” to “I want to that—and I’ll learn by doing it.” So here I am, teaching at Quest. And it has been a challenging but meaningful experience thus far. The class sizes are small, the courses are intensive and the pedagogy is strongly oriented toward interactive learning. The students in my classes come from both the basic sciences and the humanities. They bring in a rich diversity of perspectives and are engaged learners, which is great as I often have them working through problem-solving and practice-oriented assignments.

For example, in my recent class, students worked in teams of five to conduct their own empirical research on one health outcome of relevance to population/public health and three key social determinants of health (we had five teams in total, so five diverse health topics). As a class, we designed one collective online survey tool and distributed it to the entire campus community. A total of 221 student, faculty, and staff participated! In addition to critically assessing what social determinants matter for physical, mental, social and emotional wellbeing of populations, the goal was to help students gain practical knowledge of the research process, from designing their own research question, through gathering and analyzing data, to disseminating their results. Next Monday, we are hosting “Quest’s Next Top Researcher,” a 5-minute research competition where they will present their findings. All Quest students, faculty and staff can attend to learn about health at Quest and to celebrate undergraduate student research.

If you had 3 words or fewer to describe your teaching style? 

Interdisciplinary, Intersectional, Inquiry-based