*Dos Santos uses the pronouns they/them/their
Jeffersson Brasil Pires Dos Santos, a northeastern Brazilian, has spent their professional life dedicated to working with people they describe as “excluded the most”—marginalized populations such as those who are homeless, undocumented workers and sex workers, especially people who identify as transgender.
After receiving their bachelor’s degree in nursing from the Universidade Federal de Sergipe, Dos Santos worked for two years in their home country of Brazil serving these groups through education, research and a natural gift of caring for everyone they meet.
“I am a community-oriented person,” Dos Santos said. “I am deeply influenced by Brazilian writer Paulo Freire, who once said, ‘When education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to become the oppressor,’ meaning that just attaining education is not enough—we must use our knowledge to fight injustices and help improve the lives of those in need. And educational institutions play a vital role in influencing students to have a community-oriented mindset.”
Last year, Dos Santos entered the Northern Arizona University doctoral program in interdisciplinary health. They are already using their research talents to advance integrated mental and primary healthcare research and find effective methods of ending the HIV epidemic.
“The IH PhD Program is a perfect fit for my career goals and my interests because it allows me to understand health challenges from multiple lenses that I’ve been interested in like homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia,” Dos Santos said of coming to NAU. “So that’s why I got interested in this program––because we can tackle health issues from their roots.”
Dos Santos is also a scholar in the Culturally Centered Addictions Research Training (C-CART) program, which educates clinicians, providers and doctoral students in the health professions, providing research skills related to substance use and substance use disorders using culturally centered practices.
When they saw the flyer for the C-CART program, Dos Santos said they thought it would be an “amazing opportunity” to advance their knowledge and conduct research that is culturally centered on integrated primary care and substance use disorders.
“My experiences as a nurse in Brazil have influenced me as a researcher. I provided primary care for marginalized populations, such as people living in homelessness and sex workers, for around two years,” Dos Santos said. “These groups are highly impacted by mental health conditions, such as substance use disorders, which are directly and indirectly associated with physical health problems, including tuberculosis, HIV and hypertension.
“It is important to note that I worked as a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic when the religion-based, far-right Brazilian government was purposefully adopting anti-scientific COVID-19 measures,” they added. “So when I learned about the C-CART program, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to advance my career as an integrated care researcher and learn to conduct projects in this much-needed field from a culturally centered perspective.”
Dos Santos speaks fluent English, intermediate Spanish, knows a bit of German, and is currently taking French at NAU in addition to their national Portuguese language.
Before joining NAU, Dos Santos was a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing where they worked on a project addressing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) through developing US-Brazil university collaborations and creating a program for nursing students to become FASD prevention ambassadors. This work resulted in a paper published in the International Journal of Nursing Student Scholarship by the University of Calgary, Canada.
Dos Santos is a first-generation university graduate whose parents both have an elementary school education. Their younger sister also went into nursing, despite their extreme financial hardships.
“The desire to improve the lives of my family and underserved populations is my fountain of motivation,” Dos Santos said.
Working to integrate primary care with mental health care
Through the C-CART program, Dos Santos is working as a NARBHA Institute scholar, with a fellowship to work as a graduate research assistant at The Guidance Center (TGC), a community mental health organization based in Flagstaff.
Through the project, they will be working on a study to understand the experiences of mental health patients accessing primary care at the behavioral healthcare facility.
They also received a scholarship from the Health First Allied Health Non-Clinical Community Scholarship program through the Health First Foundation. Dos Santos was the first international student to receive the award.
“The integrated care field is still in its infancy in the United States,” Dos Santos said. “In my literature review, I found that it is still uncommon to provide primary care in mental health facilities in the United States. And those facilities that provide primary care are the ones that are committed the most with patient wellness and quality improvement.”
Dos Santos’ study, teaming with C-CART scholar Amanda Acevedo and TGC directors, is also examining the experiences of patients accessing primary care at TGC, and perceptions of the facility’s clinical and management staff involved in the provision and implementation of integrated care.
“Understanding patients’ experiences are a great source of opportunities for service improvement,” Dos Santos said. “We expect to learn the barriers they face to attending appointments and ways to improve service utilization. And from providers, I hope to identify factors that facilitate the implementation of primary care for those patients, and detect challenges for implementation.”
Dos Santos is also working on another project through the NAU Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative, Ending the HIV Epidemic in Rural Oklahoma (e-HERO): An HIV-STI Intervention for Sexual Minority Men and American Indian Men.
Dos Santos said they have already learned much in their doctoral program from their doctoral advisor, Amanda Pollitt, assistant professor at the Center for Health Equity Research (CHER), and from all their C-CART professors, including Regents’ Professor Julie Baldwin, director of CHER; Chesleigh Keene, assistant professor in the NAU Department of Educational Psychology; cohort member Acevedo; and Carolyn Camplain, senior research coordinator on C-CART the e-HERO project.
“The work that Jeffersson is doing is exciting, with enormous potential to improve the lives of marginalized people,” Pollitt said. “I’m looking forward to working with them as their advisor!”
Once their doctoral program is complete, Dos Santos hopes to continue their collaborative work to improve healthcare for people who face great challenges.
“My goal is to become a professor in the United States and coordinate an international partnership between the university I’m working at and the Universidade Federal de Sergipe, so that students and faculty can share knowledge, ideas, and inspire each other,” Dos Santos said.
This research was supported in part by an NIMHD center grant to the Southwest Health Equity Research Collaborative at Northern Arizona University (U54MD012388).