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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Research

Faculty Profile: Brian Mustanski, PhD, Associate Professor in Medical Social Sciences

Brian Mustanski, PhD

After graduating from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in arts with honors in psychology, Brian Mustanski, PhD, associate professor in medical social sciences, pursued a doctorate in clinical psychology at Indiana University. 

Now back at Northwestern, Mustanski directs the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program in the Department of Medical Social Sciences (MSS) and the IPHAM Center for Community Health. He is currently principal investigator (PI) of a large research portfolio that includes five NIH grants (four R01s and one R21), two CDC research contracts, and a scholars award from the William T Grant Foundation.

Through his translational research he works closely with many community partners throughout Chicago that share the mission of eliminating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) health disparities, such as the Center on Halsted, which is the most comprehensive LGBT resource center in the Midwest. 

The integration of the IMPACT Program within the Center on Halsted facilitates the translation of research into practice, training of clinical researchers in LGBT health, engagement of the LGBT community with research, and provides “on the ground” expertise to inform his research agenda and methods. The IMPACT Program focuses on rapidly translating research into application by continuously conducting projects across the translational spectrum from epidemiology to intervention development to services research.   

Q&A

What are your research interests?
My primary research interests are in LGBT health disparities, particularly in the areas of HIV, substance use, and mental health, and in the developmental periods of adolescence through emerging adulthood. I am particularly interested in why mental, behavioral, and physical health issues cluster together in various populations. I also am very interested in how to use technology to conduct innovative research and interventions.  

What is the ultimate goal of your research?
The ultimate goal of my research is to use science to identify and eliminate LGBT health disparities. For example, young gay and bisexual men represent 60 percent of HIV infections among all young people despite only being about two percent of the population. Young gay and bisexual men, particularly black young men, are the only risk group in the US showing an increasing rate of infections. This is a dramatic disparity that is being driven, in part, by lack of prevention programs tailored to the unique needs of these young men. Our longitudinal studies have helped identify risk and protective factors, and we have developed an innovative online HIV prevention program based on these factors. 

My ultimate goal is to reduce the rate of infections by delivering effective prevention programs directly to these young men online, through text messaging and other communication channels. 

How is your research funded?

My research is primarily funded through grants from the National Institutes of Health, although more recently we have also been funded by the CDC and the Chicago Department of Public Health. Right now I am a principal investigator of three R01 grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. One grant uses a natural experiment of neighborhood relocation to study the interaction between genes and neighborhood environment in predicting a cluster of health risk behaviors.

The second grant, conducted in collaboration with researchers at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, follows a cohort of young gay and bisexual men to understand the development of a cluster of psychosocial health issues linked to HIV.  

The third grant conducts a multi-site trial of my online HIV prevention program. 

I am a principal investigator of another R01 from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop and test a text messaging-based HIV prevention program and an R21 to study romantic relationship factors related to HIV risk in young couples. I am the Chicago PI of a large CDC research contract to test the reliability and behavioral effects of rapid HIV self-testing, which recently received FDA approval and dual-PI (with Michael Newcomb, PhD, research assistant professor in MSS) on a contract with the Chicago Department of Public Health to conduct a large epidemiological study of young gay and bisexual men in Chicago. Finally, I received a William T Grant Scholars award that supports my work on the Internet as a setting for the development of sexual health among LGBT youth.  

Who makes up your research team and what role does each individual play in your research?
The IMPACT Program currently has five faculty members with training in psychology and public health. These faculty members collaborate on the projects I mentioned above, and launch their own grants to conduct translational LGBT health research. We have several master’s level data analysts and project directors with diverse training backgrounds. Across this group we have assembled a lot of expertise and experience in longitudinal and multilevel data analysis. We have an excellent group of research assistants that help collect and manage our data. The interviewers in particular are exceptional at developing rapport with our participants, and I credit them for achieving excellent retention in our longitudinal studies. Finally the Department of Medical Social Sciences has a very strong group of faculty and staff working on health information technology and it has been very productive to collaborate with them on a number of projects. 

Which honors are you most proud of and why?
I am really proud of the fact that one of my studies, called Project Q2, is the longest running longitudinal study of LGBT youth ever conducted. We know surprisingly little about the healthy development of these young people, and Project Q2 has helped fill in some of these gaps. I am honored by the recognition I have received for this work, including last year receiving the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution to LGBT Psychology from the American Psychological Association and in 2008 being named a William T Grant Scholar. This Scholars award has been an exceptional opportunity to network with fantastic researchers around the country conducting research to improve the lives of young people. I have learned so much from these other scholars and my mentors on this award, both personally and professionally, that it has been an invaluable experience. 

What do you enjoy about teaching and mentoring young scientists in the lab?
There are simply not enough scientists trained in LGBT health research to address the disparities. I feel it is critical to help train the next generation of LGBT scholars. Beyond this need in the field, I enjoy mentoring young scientists in launching their careers. I am fortunate to mentor a bright and motivated group of scholars, and I feel my main jobs are to provide them with infrastructure, connections, and training in grant writing, and then watch them launch their careers.