Featured Research & Scholarship

Mount Royal professor recognized as one of Canada’s integral HIV researchers

Brent Oliver is selected for elite Universities Without Walls fellowship

Oliver, Department of Social Work and Disability Studies, will complete community-based research in Alberta with a goal to establish a research caucus within the Alberta Community Council on HIV.

Through his research, Oliver also aims to help ensure financial resources, support and expertise will be directed to community-based HIV research in Alberta with a specific focus on the health and wellness needs of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

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Brent Oliver, assistant professor in the department of Social Work and Disability Studies, is selected for elite University Without Walls fellowship. Oliver will complete community-based research in Alberta with a goal to establish a research caucus within the Alberta Community Council on HIV.                                                               — Photo by, Bryan Weismiller

Concern for community dovetails academic pursuits

As an undergraduate student in Toronto during the early 1990s, Brent Oliver, PhD, was on the frontlines at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Oliver — an assistant professor at Mount Royal University who was recently named part of the prestigious University Without Walls group — remembers the alarming spectre.

Many considered the HIV virus to be a death sentence, and there was rampant fear within the gay community, which was considered among the most vulnerable to its brutality. Community activists were rallying to establish services that weren’t yet being provided by mainstream health care or social service providers.

“It was a time of a lot of fear and anxiety,” Oliver said. “But it was also a time of a lot of advocacy and a lot of mobilizing within the gay community to try to get something done.

“I came in on the tail end of that.”

Oliver’s concern for his community dovetailed with his academic pursuits in what would become a lifelong theme. Inspired by a university professor who was doing research on HIV, he wound up doing a practicum in the field.

“From there I discovered a passion for doing that type of work and have stayed connected to HIV/AIDS throughout my degrees and my work over the years,” Oliver said.

His career moved away from Toronto to support work at a drop-in centre in downtown Ottawa where he observed the epidemic was broadening into other populations outside the gay community, such as injection drug users.

Oliver found health-specific issues overlapped with other social concerns such as poverty, racial diversity and discrimination.

“It brought a lot more complexity to the work,” he said.

After new medications were introduced in 1996, researchers began to see the infection as a long-term episodic issue that needed to be managed instead of routinely treated as a fatal condition.

Oliver stayed involved with community-based research as he completed his Master’s degree at Carleton University in Ottawa and moved west to earn a PhD at the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary in 2007. After three years of part-time instruction, Oliver signed on to work for the Department of Social Work and Disability Studies at Mount Royal in 2012. He will be teaching four courses on campus over this academic year.

In June 2014, Oliver learned he was accepted to participate in Universities Without Walls (UWW) for the second time. It’s a coveted position, as UWW invites only 10 people from across the country to participate as fellows in each cohort, starting in September and ending in May of the following year. In the 2014 cohort, participants receive a $20,000-award to be directed towards strengthening an HIV community-based research agenda.

Chad London, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Health and Community Studies, suggested the recognition speaks to Oliver’s expertise and future potential while also indicating to academic and community circles that Mount Royal fosters research that makes a positive difference in peoples' lives.

“Brent's fellowship with UWW will take his research around people living with HIV to the next level by accessing mentorship and collegial support of the best and brightest scholars of this critical topic,” London said.

As part of his UWW fellowship, Oliver has his eye on developing a localized research agenda in HIV community-based research in Alberta in tandem with regional and national collaborators. He will work with Floyd Visser, the Executive Director of the Sharp Foundation and noted provincial leader and strong advocate for HIV community based research in Alberta, as well as Jackie Gahagan, PhD, from The Gender and Health Promotion Studies Unit at Dalhousie University.

Working with other community partners, the team hopes to establish a research caucus within the Alberta Community Council on HIV. Oliver also expects the fellowship to provide him with the time to conduct research that helps ensure financial resources, support and expertise will be directed to community-based HIV research in the province with a specific focus on the health and wellness needs of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

D. Gaye Warthe, PhD, highlighted Oliver’s work as an example of the depth and breadth of research being done at Mount Royal.  Warthe also stressed the recognition is important to the Bachelor of Social Work being developed at the University.

“The benefit to students is that they are exposed to new information as it is available,” said Warthe, chair of the Department of Social Work and Disability Studies.

Oliver noted UWW provides support for academics of many different stripes, along with people living with HIV and HIV support workers and educators.

“There are great opportunities for people interested in doing this type of research work,” he said.

Aug. 26, 2014 — Bryan Weismiller