Undergraduate research scholar works to promote teen STI and pregnancy prevention

Daniel Kington
April 10, 2018

Romeo, GabrielleGabrielle Romeo, an Ohio University senior studying psychology, is helping at-risk youth prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections through her work as an Undergraduate Research Scholar at OHIO’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Administered by the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Personal Responsibility Education Program is part of a national initiative to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections, focusing on youth in the juvenile justice or foster care systems. Ohio PREP also provides education on other adulthood topics, such as healthy relationships and financial literacy. The Voinovich School is performing an evaluation for Ohio PREP that analyzes quantitative and qualitative data to help improve the program and increase its efficacy.

Margaret Hutzel, a senior project manager at the Voinovich School, coordinates the School’s work on the evaluation. Romeo has assisted Hutzel by analyzing data as well as compiling information about the evaluation for program leaders. Romeo said that she loves working with the program, because she feels that she is making a real impact.

“One of the biggest reasons that this program is necessary is because it is proven statistically that if you teach kids about the risks of STIs and pregnancy, as well as how to practice safer sex, the rates of unplanned pregnancy and STIS go way down,” Romeo said. “I really want to help people, and I know that this program is helping people.”

The youth served by Ohio PREP are at higher risk for unplanned pregnancy and STIs. Among the 14-19 year-olds served by the program, over 70 percent have had sex, and among those sexually active, more than 40 percent reported never using condoms and nearly 30 percent of girls reported having experienced at least one pregnancy.  

Romeo believes those statistics point to the need for a program that offers evidence-based programming that can teach young women about the dangers of STIs and unplanned pregnancy as well as how to have safer sex. She said the Voinovich School’s emphasis on collecting qualitative data is particularly important in helping Ohio PREP accomplish those goals effectively.

“Collecting feedback from the people that you are serving really helps to ensure that everything runs smoothly and that the maximum number of people are getting the information they need to lead healthier and safer lives,” Romeo said.

In addition to data entry and analysis for the evaluation, Romeo has created data visualizations of STI and pregnancy rates in Ohio, because program facilitators reported that students often asked about Ohio-specific data. Although examining such data was not part of the Voinovich School’s evaluation contract, the flexibility granted by the Scholars program allowed the School to respond to the client’s needs. Romeo said she is almost finished with the infographic and is excited for students to have access to it.

“The rates of pregnancy and STIs in Ohio are a lot higher than most of these young women probably realize,” Romeo said. “This data visualization will show students that it’s not just the United States at large that’s dealing with this problem. Instead, these students will be able to see how many people this is happening to in their own state, which will make it harder for them to assume they will never be affected.”

Hutzel said Romeo has enhanced the Voinovich School’s ability to meet the needs of Ohio PREP.

“Gabrielle has really brought a lot of value to the project,” Hutzel said. “Through her work on the evaluation and her production of the infographic, she has been able to make contributions that the Voinovich School probably would not have been able to make without her.”

In addition to helping others in the short term, Romeo said her work on the project will guide her to assisting more people in the long term, as it has given her new professional experience that will be important to her career in psychology.

“Participating in the Scholars program is a professional experience unlike anything I’ve had before,” Romeo said. “I have a supervisor I can come to whenever I need to, but I also have the space and freedom to figure out how to do things on my own. The position is teaching how to be in an office space and how to manage my time when there’s not a syllabus in front of me with deadlines.”

Romeo said her position has taught her, specifically, how to work with qualitative data, which will be particularly relevant, as Romeo hopes to one day perform research in her field.

“My classes have provided me the opportunity to learn how to work with quantitative data, but prior to joining the Voinovich School, I didn’t know much about qualitative data,” Romeo said. “Working on this project has really opened my eyes to how awesome qualitative data is, so in addition to helping people, I’ve been able to expand my toolbox for research.”

The sort of research Romeo hopes to conduct will require further schooling, for which Romeo said she will be uniquely prepared. Before then, however, Romeo will take a year off and work in Huntington, West Virginia, as a therapist in applied behavioral analysis. Through this position, Romeo will work with children who have autism, are nonverbal or have a range of behavioral issues.

“I’m super excited to start my position as an ABA therapist,” Romeo said. “The position will allow me to build upon my experience at the Voinovich School by helping children in a different way.”